EPA's Proposed Air Standards
Cloud Forecast for Texas Economy
Early this year, the TNRCC held nine public meetings across the sate to hear what the public had to say about the EPA's proposed changes to the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).
There were few middle of the-road remarks among the more than 2,200 comments received on the proposals that would tighten the ozone standard and establish the first-ever standard for fine particulate matter.
Public debate began to heat up in November 1996, when the EPA first announced proposed revisions to the air standards. The current ozone standard, last revised in 1979, is set at 0.12 parts per million (ppm) for one hour, which cannot be exceeded more than three times in a three-year period. The EPA now proposes an eight-hour standard set at 0.08 ppm. An area would go out of compliance when the third highest daily maximum eight-hour concentration, averaged over three years, reached above 0.08 ppm.
EPA also proposed to revise the current particulate matter standards by adding a new annual PM2.5 level for particulars as small as 2.5 microns in diameter. For scale, it would take about 30,000 particles that size to dot an "i". The proposal calls for annual PM2.5 to be set at 15 micrograms per cubic meter and a new 24-hour PM2.5 standard to be set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter (please see sidebar).
EPA Proposals: Sky's the Limit
With its air proposals, EPA has sought to establish health-based standards without consideration of costs - an approach that is mandated by both the Clean Air Act and Congress, according to Jane Saginaw, EPA Region 6 Administrator. She emphasized that this is a two-stage process, and that "we are still in the proposal stage, which involves review of the scientific data and outreach for public comments." The next stage of the process begins in July, when EPA adopts a health-based standard, she said. At that point the agency will sit down with everyone who has an interest and collaboratively develop a plan for commonsense, cost-effective implementation.
"At this point, no one knows what the final costs will be," Saginaw said. "But we do know the benefits: The standards will bring Texas cleaner air and better protection of public health."
"These proposals have received far more extensive scientific and public review than any previous public health standards," Saginaw said.
Levels of Health Protectiveness Disputed
Despite EPA's official position, a common concern in the regulated community is what appears to be a lack of scientific consensus on an appropriate standard for protecting public health. A majority of the EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) recommended a range of levels (0.08 ppm to 0.09 ppm) for ozone between which "no bright line" of health protectiveness can be drawn.
There is no toxicological study that shows greater health protection will be achieved with the proposed 0.08 ppm standard that with a 0.09 standard, observes TNRCC Chairman Barry McBee. "There does not seem to be an appreciable difference," he said, "and so responsible public policy demands that EPA consider costs as well as benefits in setting standards.
"If more research is needed on ozone, we should do that now instead or prematurely altering a standard which is working in Texas," McBee continued.
According to Saginaw, our current standard when averaged over an eight-hour period is about 0.09 ppm. To be more protective of the public health, EPA proposes to set the standard at 0.08 ppm averaged over an eight-hour period. "Maintaining the status quo would not meet our goal for achieving an acceptable level of health protectiveness," she said.
Still the issue remains ambiguous TNRCC Commissioner Ralph Marquez notes that that a recent study sponsored by EPA has increased the uncertainty about replacing the one-hour ozone standard with an eight-hour standard. The study suggests that the one-hour standard would be more protective than the eight-hour standard in two cities, Houston and Los Angeles.
"This has contributed to the atmosphere of confusion which already exists about this whole process," Marques said. "It clearly points out that we do not know as much as we think we know about ozone. Surprisingly, we don't even know enough about the two cities with the worst ozone problems in the country."
The uncertainties have led a number of groups to call for keeping the current standards while research continues.
Floyd Bowen, Chairman of the Texas NAAQS Working Group, a consortium of industry groups and corporations such as Exxon and General Motors, advocates maintaining the current standards because of the high cost and the potential economic impact on millions of people.
"The costs of air pollution controls designed to achieve the proposed standards would dwarf the marginal ozone benefits, while whatever benefits might come from the new particulate standards are too uncertain to compare with the huge costs," Bowen said.
Call for Complete Cost-Benefit Analysis
As part of its rule-making process, the EPA has made an effort to determine the costs and benefits of the air proposal. On top of the $50 billion annual cost of the Clean Air Act, the EPA estimates the new regulations would cost another $8 billion a year. EPA officials say, however, that the costs would be offset by stricter standards that they say would prolong the lives of 20,000 Americans every year and save from $51 billion to $112 billion in health costs (from factors such as lost worker days and reduced productivity).
The EPA acknowledges that the new standards will require a new influx of dollars and effort, but argues that the economic impact will not seriously constrain commerce.
Saginaw points out that nationwide since 1970 when the Clean Air Act went into effect, the emissions of the six major air pollutants dropped 29 percent. Yet in this same time period, the country's population grew 28 percent and the gross domestic product doubled.
"We have every reason to believe that the U.S. and Texas economies will continue to grow under the new air standards," Saginaw said.
The TNRCC and the regulated community, however, are concerned that the EPA proposals would more than double the number of areas in Texas that do not meet the federal air standard for ozone. The new standards would give Texas the most nonattainment areas in the country. The significance is that nonattainment status generally places a cap on economic development and growth.
Affected areas would rise from the current four (Beaumont/Port Arthur, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, and Houston/Galveston) to nine, with the addition of
Austin, Corpus Christi, Longview/Marshall/Tyler, San Antonio, and Victoria.
H. Duane Harris, president of the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, voices another common concern about placing an additional burden on small businesses. He offered sample estimates compiled by the association for what annual statewide compliance with the new standard would cost small employers in Texas:
- $15.1 million for the 275 dry cleaners that use petroleum based solvents.
- $200 million for the states 5,000 gasoline stations.
- $56 million in increased production costs for 3,750 printers
Problems of Ozone Transport
Herb Williams, TNRCC's director of air policy and regulations, notes that the proposed new air quality standards are complicated by another factor: ozone transport, the migration (through wind patterns) of ground-level ozone and ozone-causing chemicals. The problem is the focus of the Ozone Transport Assessment Group (OTAG), a partnership among the EPA, 37 member states, the Environmental Council of States, and various industry and environmental groups. The goal of the partnership is to develop a consensus agreement for reducing ground-level ozone.
OTAG's efforts reflect the fact that ozone nonattainment areas must address ozone and ozone-causing chemicals inside and outside their boundaries.
"Texas is examining whether we should be exempt from at least some of OTAG restrictions on the emissions because our contribution to ozone levels in other states is so minimal," Williams said.
Nonetheless, because OTAG insists on placing restrictions on all 37 states, Texas would have to comply with both the new air standards as well as any OTAG requirements adopted by EPA.
The TNRCC Responds
Following consideration of comments from the public meetings, TNRCC commissioners submitted comments on the proposed NAAQS changes to EPA in March.
The commission has recommended that the NAAQS for ozone remain unchanged until EPA produces sound, conclusive scientific studies that support a new standard. If EPA implements a new standard, the TNRCC recommends that the new ozone standard be 0.09 ppm or higher, averaged over eight-hours. EPA's CASAC recommended a range from 0.08 ppm to 0.09 ppm. The 0.0p ppm level would protect public health and avoid the creation of new nonattainment areas within Texas. The commission also recommends that EPA aggressively pursue research and not propose a standard for fine particulates until more is known about their effect on human health.
"It should not be too much to ask government - especially given the potential effects on families, business and industry and the staggering costs of regulations - to adopt standards that are both clear and based on sound science." said TNRCC Chairman Barry McBee.