Ozone may be next big Oregon regulation issue

By  John Ledger
Associated Oregon Industries
Oregon largest business advocate

It all rides on one little number

Back in D.C., the EPA is encountering mounting resistance to a host of issues, not the least of which is the agencies impending decision on a revised ground level ozone standard.

There are big implications for Oregon. If an area is found to be violating an ambient standard such as ozone, either because of increased emissions or a tightening of the standard, the area is then classified as being in “nonattainment.” And being a nonattainment area carries big penalties as far as economic growth and job creation is concerned. Severe restrictions on new construction or expansion and near impossible permitting requirements are all the consequences of being labeled as a nonattainment area.

Ozone is a compound made up of three oxygen atoms (O3), corrosive and delirious to various materials including lung tissue. The exact new level for the standard is expected to be somewhere in the 60 to 70 parts per billion (ppb) range, a reduction from the current 75 ppb.

The reduction may not sound like much, but it could be a very big deal. Ozone levels in Oregon have been dropping steadily, and no areas are currently classified as nonattainment. But the new standards may be so much more strict that even though we are doing better all the time, the new goal post will be impossibly distant. If the 70 ppb limit is chosen, few, if any areas of Oregon are likely to fall in to nonattainment; if the 60 ppb level is chosen, Portland, Salem, Eugene, Medford, maybe even Hermiston (the Watermelon Capital), will all likely get a big scarlet “NA” branded into their foreheads. If the standard is set somewhere in between 60 and 70 ppb, there will be cities that will fall on one side of the fence or the other, depending on most event data and how it is interpreted.

Once an area is in nonattainment a whole lot of things get triggered. Ozone is a secondary pollutant; it is not emitted directly, but is formed from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOX) in the presence of sunlight. The main source of VOCs and nitrous oxides is automobiles, but there are a lot of other sources. For instance, VOCs are also emitted by combustion of all types; aftershave, restaurant exhaust vents, solvents, paint, charcoal starter fluid, lawn mower engines, and lots of manufacturing operations. To get reductions in VOCs and NOX everything is fair game; car smog checks, severe limitations on new facility construction or expansion, even product restrictions may be in the offing.

This would happen all over the county. Hundreds of places meeting the current standards will get reclassified with all the near-impossible permitting restrictions imposed. Those areas that are already in nonattainment will fall that much further behind. It has created a firestorm.

The Clean Air Act gives the EPA great authority, actually a mandate, to set air quality standards to whatever levels the agency finds is needed to protect public health. Such standards are adopted by rule and not subject to approval by congress. In order for congress to alter or prevent promulgation, they have two choices: 1) Pass a law overriding the rule and get it signed by the President, or 2) cut, or threaten to cut, funding. The former is impossible since it is the Presidents own agency proposing the rule and one body of congress is of the same party and the Chief Executive. But the latter has already been used to some, albeit controversial, effect, and is certain to be the source for headline material, at least in the environmental blogs.

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