IDEM chief choking on EPA's new ozone proposal

April 22, 2010

The head of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has asked federal regulators not to approve a proposed stricter standard for ground-level ozone.

Tom Easterly argues the standard would be expensive yet bring a minuscule reduction in death rates.

Easterly, in a letter last month to the Environmental Protection Agency, cited a concern over the lack of scientific process and peer review. The federal agency is considering whether to lower the ozone standard to a range between 0.060 to 0.070 parts per million.

The current level is 0.085 ppm, although the agency in 2008 began phasing in a 0.075 standard.

Easterly, citing the EPA’s own data, argues that a 0.065 ppm ozone standard would save about 3,600 lives per year at an incremental compliance cost of $37.3 billion.

In other words, a fourfold cost increase reduces the U.S. death rate by “less than 0.012 percent,” the letter says.

“The calculated cost per additional life saved of approximately $10.4 million does not keep the person alive forever, but actually extends the life for some undefined period,” Easterly wrote.

The commissioner, who was not available for comment, was not arguing that cost-benefit ratio is more important than human lives, said Scott Deloney, chief of the programs branch of IDEM’s Office of Air Quality.

Rather, Easterly was merely invoking EPA’s own data to make a point that federal regulators have failed to make a compelling case for the proposed lower standard, Deloney added.

That is, cost of compliance is rising fourfold, yet the regulation would reduce death rates by only “a fraction of a fraction of a percent.”

The question is “What is truly necessary to protect the public health?” Deloney said.

Easterly said the EPA is relying on an interpretation of a health study that even its author does not support “and sets a dangerous precedent.”

While the EPA does weigh premature or increased human morbidity from ozone pollution as it assigns monetary values to those outcomes, “I think Easterly’s letter oversimplifies that discussion,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

“There are many other costs factored into this analysis, including health care costs, missed work days, missed school days … that also result from excessive pollution levels,” Maloney said.

Ozone is typically a summertime menace, formed when products of industrial and vehicle emissions such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic chemicals are exposed to sunlight and heat.

Ozone is a health risk particularly to those with asthma.

Indiana has achieved compliance with the current 0.085-percent standard.  Most of the state already complies with the 0.075-percent standard proposed in 2008, although Marion County is among four counties statewide not yet in compliance with that level.

Easterly is arguing that the EPA should continue to phase in the 0.075 level, particularly because the proposed 0.060-to-0.070 standard will likely be subject to years of litigation. Court delays arguably would result in further public health implications.

IDEM’s Deloney said it’s unclear what actions would have to be taken in Indiana to comply with the tough proposed standard, in part because the agency doesn’t know how each metro area would be designated.

“We really don’t have a sense for the impact specifically to Indiana,” he said. “Until we have the new implementation rule, we won’t know what will be required for Indianapolis” as well.

Some areas now face tougher compliance hurdles than others. For example, vehicle-emission testing is required in northwestern Indiana, though not in central Indiana. Easterly argues that some of those old measures are no longer necessary, thanks to a new generation of onboard vehicle diagnostic systems and onboard gasoline vapor-recovery canisters.

Complicating matters is that the EPA is in the midst of revising several other air-pollution measures, ranging from fine particulates to sulfur dioxide.

“EPA should provide state and local governments the opportunity to attain the current ozone (national ambient air-quality standards) before imposing further restrictive standards,” Easterly wrote.

If the EPA adopts the strict proposed standard, states would have until December 2013 to file with the agency their plans for compliance.

States could, for example, pull back on what they allow industries to emit into the air. That would have economic implications for industry, which could elect to install additional controls or to take more draconian measures such as closing or moving a facility.

Easterly wants the EPA to place a special emphasis on reducing the background effects of ozone from large urban areas such as Chicago and Houston on downwind states. Some of the Chicago area’s pollutants blow into Indiana and contribute to ozone formation.

“Some of these counties will be arbitrarily labeled as 'nonattainment' and will have no true impact on air quality as they are heavily impacted by ozone transport and interstate travel over which they have very limited control,” Easterly told EPA.

“Being designated as nonattainment adversely impacts communities by making it harder to attract and retain business and industry and sustain economic growth and vitality. “


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