Industry takes deep breath over ozone: Tougher EPA standards could force costly emission controls, choke economic growth

Just when the nine-county metro area appeared back in the good graces of the federal government where ozone levels are concerned, the feds want to tighten the standard once more.

Manufacturers and other businesses that pump pollutants into the air that combine with sunlight to produce ozone are “apprehensive” about the proposed new rules, said Patrick Bennett, vice president of environmental, energy and infrastructure at the Indiana Manufacturers Association.

Businesses in non-attainment counties face possible restrictions on expansion of facilities and mandates to install expensive pollution control equipment.

“What do we do to get to that [new level]?” Bennett asked.

The answer might become a little clearer, next March, when the Environmental Protection Agency plans to publish new rules. Last month, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson proposed lowering the permitted levels as far as 70 parts per billion, from 84 parts per billion.

In the meantime, city officials are waiting to find out if metro air is in compliance with current standards. Last year, city officials asked the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to ask the EPA to redesignate Marion County and surrounding counties to ozone attainment status.

City officials offered a fistful of ozone monitoring data they said demonstrated that the region has met the current ozone standard for the first time since 1997.

An EPA decision regarding the region is expected imminently, according to IDEM.

Lately, IDEM officials have been crunching numbers, trying to calculate which counties in Indiana would not be in ozone attainment, based on more restrictive levels that could be adopted by the federal agency.

“The stricter standard could mean nonattainment again in the future,” said Daniel Murray, assistant commissioner of IDEM’s Office of Air Quality.

The state will be responsible for determining which areas aren’t in attainment and for quarterbacking a plan to get into compliance.

After the EPA comes up with its new standard, the state of Indiana likely would have about three years to develop an attainment plan, said Tony Sullivan, administrator of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Environmental Law Practice Group.

He said manufacturers worry about the potential of tougher rules to limit their ability to expand here–and what it might cost to comply.

Emissions compliance costs have gone through the roof in some industries, such as electrical generation. Indianapolis Power & Light Co. said it has spent more than $400 million to reduce nitrogen and sulfur emissions over the last five years. Costs of some recent projects have soared because of a shortage of materials and crews as utilities nationwide launch projects that will help them comply with federal standards.

IPL has asked for state approval to pass on some of those costs to ratepayers, which include businesses.

As for ozone, IDEM officials said it’s possible new pollution controls could be required in non-attainment counties, but that it was too early to say what those new controls might entail.

Manufacturers and utilities aren’t the only contributors to ground-based ozone-so are emissions from private motor vehicles.

Hanging over the nine-county region is the specter of vehicle emissions testing if the region remains in non-attainment status.

Ozone is a chemical reaction of oxides and nitrogen and any number of volatile organic compounds that spew from vehicles and smokestacks. It can cause respiratory irritation and worsen asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

The EPA’s proposed tougher ozone limits stem from a settlement with the American Lung Association and other parties. They alleged that the federal agency failed to comply with Clean Air Act requirements to review every five years the latest scientific findings on ozone’s health effects.

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