The St. Louis area will have to do more to reduce smog-causing air pollution under new federal standards released Thursday.
More stringent ozone pollution rules from the Environmental Protection Agency came just as the St. Louis region was nearing compliance with the existing 2008 standards after years of improving air quality. Instead of just a few more months, it will take years longer for the St. Louis area to meet the EPA’s latest ozone regulations.
And while the St. Louis area was the only region in Missouri that exceeded the old smog limits, more areas of the state may now have to take action to reduce emissions from factories and power plants or launch vehicle emission testing programs.
The emissions rules could have forced far more areas around the country, including many small to medium cities, to take action. Instead, the final limits were on the high end of a range laid out by the agency when it proposed the regulations in November. And the EPA emphasized that existing air regulations governing power plants and improving fuel economy and cleaner emissions from automobiles will do much of the work to reduce smog around the country’s large cities. The agency projects the St. Louis region will be in compliance by 2025.
The Obama administration’s new ozone standards didn’t fully satisfy either industry, which opposed tougher standards, and environmental and public health advocates, which sought stricter limits.
“It could have been worse,” said Roger Walker, the executive director of Regform, which helps some of Missouri’s largest businesses comply with environmental regulations.
The EPA was considering limits for ozone concentrations as low as 65 parts per billion, and some worried it could have gone as low as 60 parts per billion.
But the EPA opted for the higher 70 parts per billion, down from an existing standard of 75 parts per billion. It said the new standard would still provide benefits of $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion annually by 2025 as a result of thousands of fewer asthma attacks and missed days of school and hundreds of premature deaths avoided. Annual costs are estimated at $1.4 billion by the middle of next decade.
Ground-level ozone is created when pollution from cars, factories and power plants bakes in the sun during the hot summer months. It exacerbates respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Children, older people, outdoor workers and those with pre-existing lung conditions are especially vulnerable.
Because of its high ozone levels, the St. Louis region is the only area in Missouri that requires emissions testing when motorists go to renew their license plates, a program it began in 1984. Automobiles are the largest source of the chemicals that form ozone, but factories, utilities, the petroleum industry and industrial solvents also contribute.
Walker said his group didn’t see the need to lower the standard at all, but that the 70 parts per billion was “a nice compromise.”
“If they went to 65 or 60, this would be very challenging for a lot of communities that have never had to deal with ozone issues,” Walker said. “We’ll manage it. The alarm bells were based on if this went to 60 or 65.”
Public health and environmental groups, meanwhile, said they had hoped for a more protective standard.
“It goes in the right direction and it’s definitely going to help prevent some asthma attacks and premature deaths,” said Susannah Fuchs, the St. Louis-based clean air director for the American Lung Association’s upper Midwest region. But “70 parts per billion isn’t what the science shows for public health protection.”
The EPA had sought to lower the ozone limits four years ago but suspended the effort in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
Some industrial groups had warned that the rules could be the most expensive regulations ever. Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Dan Mehan called them “another example of regulators gone wild.
”Some in Congress have proposed bills to delay or soften the rules’ impact.
While Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she thought the limit of 70 parts per billion was “appropriate,” she has also proposed a bill with a Republican Senate colleague, Orrin Hatch of Utah, to create an alternative process to meet ozone limits. Similar to how the existing process works, areas worried about being designated as out of compliance would have to show progress toward bringing down ozone levels. But some areas would have longer to reach the goals.
“This wouldn’t ever be a situation that would allow a community to escape accountability of the requirements under the ozone rule,” McCaskill said in a phone interview.
But Fuchs, of the Lung Association, urged McCaskill and others in Congress to leave the Clean Air Act, the landmark environmental law that contains the EPA’s rulemaking authority for ozone and a host of other pollutants, alone.
“Changing that is opening up the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Air Act is a great set of tools that has been used for a long time” to bring down pollution levels, Fuchs said.
St. Louis has been out of attainment for decades, but it has made significant progress. In 1991, EPA said it was out of attainment of the old 120 parts per billion standard.
By 2002, it met that standard. Since then, St. Louis, and the counties of St. Louis, St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson, as well as several Metro East counties, have progressed toward the 2008 standard of 75 parts per billion.
St. Charles County had the highest ozone pollution in the metro area, with an average of around 78 parts per billion, according to the EPA.
Missouri air quality officials have said recently they expected the region to attain the old 75 parts per billion standard by the end of the year.
The EPA is likely to base final designations for the new standard on data from 2014 through 2016, meaning new measures and state plans won’t be due for almost five years. And the new data won’t include the summer of 2012, which recorded an unusually high number of bad ozone days because of the abnormally hot summer.
Still, the new standards could kick the counties adjoining the St. Louis area out of compliance. Estimates based on existing data indicate St. Genevieve, Perry and Lincoln counties could all fall above the new limits. Two counties in the Kansas City area and one in the Joplin area also could fall above the new limits.
Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch Washington bureau contributed to this report.