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  • Writer's pictureCorey Provencal

Air rules could force changes here in Florida

By Kate Spinner

New federal air quality rules, expected in the coming weeks, will likely trigger a wave of emission controls on industries in Southwest Florida, and the possibility of motor vehicle inspections.

Air quality in the metropolitan region from Sarasota County to Hillsborough County ranks among the worst in the state for the pollutant ozone, created when industrial emissions, car exhaust and other vapors, such as those from gasoline, react with the sun.

Though ozone pollution here is much less severe than many other parts of the nation, it occasionally becomes bad enough to cause health problems for children, the elderly and people with respiratory illness.

Southwest Florida’s air quality barely meets current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, and with those thresholds set to rise, the region will be forced to put better curbs on air pollution.

In Southwest Florida, new industries will likely have to install improved emissions controls and older plants may have to upgrade equipment. Vehicle inspections also remain a possibility, but only if other measures do not go far enough, said Tom Rogers, an environmental administrator with the Florida Division of Air Resource Management.

The EPA had planned to impose the new standards at the end of October, but postponed the date recently without explanation. The agency has been under immense industry pressure to maintain the status quo and getting lawsuit threats from advocacy groups pushing tougher rules.

The new rules will mark the first enforced adjustment to air quality standards since 1997.

“EPA is working hard to finalize an ozone standard that is based on what the science tells us about this threat to Americans’ health. We will announce the final rule as soon as it is ready — this is an important and complex rulemaking and EPA is working to ensure we get it right,” said agency press secretary Brendan Gilfillan in a prepared statement.

Poor air quality

High in the atmosphere, ozone occurs naturally and protects the planet from the sun’s rays. At ground level it becomes a pollutant, created when fuel emissions react with the sun and hot weather.

Extremely sensitive people suffer when air contains more than 60 molecules of ozone for every billion molecules of good air ingredients, such as oxygen and nitrogen. Scientists express that measurement in parts per billion, or ppb.

Within the past 12 months in Sarasota, air quality exceeded 60 ppb for eight hours or longer 35 times, said John Hickey, manager of Sarasota County’s air quality program.

When ozone goes above 75 ppb, most communities issue air quality alerts to warn the young, elderly, those who exercise outdoors and people with asthma or other lung diseases.

Under the EPA’s expiring rules, however, communities do not have to reduce air pollution unless ozone levels routinely spike above 80 ppb. The EPA uses a complicated calculation, based on a three-year average, to judge a community’s air quality.

The new eight-hour standard will fall somewhere between 60 ppb and 70 ppb. Air monitoring stations in Sarasota scored between 70 ppb and 74 ppb for the three-year period ending in 2009. The highest readings during that time climbed into the 80 ppb to 85 ppb range. The highest reading so far this year was 80 ppb at Lido Park on Oct. 22.

Health threat

To most people, ozone in Southwest Florida rarely gets bad enough to notice — in comparison, the worst parts of Los Angeles rise into the 100s — but it can pose serious health problems for some people.

Clean air advocates say the standard should protect everyone, including the vulnerable few.

“We don’t want health standards set to protect a middle-aged, healthy man. We want to make sure his mother and his child and his brother with asthma are all protected,” said Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association.

Norman Edelman, a New York physician and chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, said 20 million to 30 million people in the U.S. have lung disease, making it more difficult for them to breathe as ozone levels increase. Children also develop poor lung function when they are chronically exposed to high ozone levels, Edelman said.

The Clean Air Act requires the federal government to set air quality standards that are healthy for all people and to review those standards every five years.

During such review in 2007, the EPA’s scientists concluded that the national standards were not protective enough and should be set somewhere between 60 ppb and 70 ppb. The EPA in 2008 was going to set the standard at 75 ppb, but the American Lung Association and National Resources Defense Council threatened to sue. A year later, the EPA said it would reconsider the 60 ppb to 70 ppb standard.

The EPA estimates that improving air quality to 60 ppb by 2020 would save 4,000 to 12,000 people from premature death related to respiratory illness and heart failure. Further, the agency estimates that people will collectively miss 2.5 million fewer days of work or school under the tougher standard.

That boost in air quality comes with a high price tag: up to $90 billion, according to EPA estimates. However, the EPA estimates the cost on the health system overall will drop by as much as $100 billion.

Industry groups say stricter standards will cost much more, crippling the economy. A report by the Manufacturers Alliance, funded by the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, estimates the economic cost at more than $1 trillion starting in 2020.

Depending on how strict the EPA gets, the rules could trigger a Florida vehicle inspection program, said Reggie Sanford, enforcement analysis manager with the Air Management Division in Hillsborough County.

“If you’re at a certain level of non-attainment, then according to federal law you’re required to have an inspection and maintenance program,” he said.

Inspection programs are extremely controversial because they can leave people, especially the poor, without a legal car to drive and usually meet with staunch public opposition.

• John P. Lapotaire, CIEC • Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant • Microshield Environmental Services, LLC

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