The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday tighter standards on ground-level ozone, which is often referred to as smog.
Last year, the EPA announced that it would consider changing the standard of 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air to somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion, based on the recommendations of the agency's scientists. The agency later said it was considering a standard between 65 and 70 parts per billion, but accepted public comments on the standard of 60 parts of ozone per billion.
In its 627-page final rule, the EPA wrote that it chose 70 parts of ozone per billion parts of air after considering public comments. The agency did not issue a news release on the rules Thursday or hold a news conference, but the agency posted the final rule on its website.
Nationally, environmental and health groups decried the new standards as too high, and business groups were upset with a new standard being issued at all. But Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh said she believed the state will be in compliance without having to change the way it operates.
"That standard we believe is a standard that is achievable in Arkansas," she said.
The standard was last updated in 2008. The final rule issued Thursday targets ground-level ozone, which is considered a public-health issue. Ozone that occurs at a higher atmospheric level, commonly called the ozone layer, is considered protective of the earth's atmosphere.
Since a hot 2012, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality hasn't issued any "ozone-action" advisories, which are air-quality warnings most often targeted toward people with respiratory problems. Even after a hotter-than-average 2015 summer, ozone averages across the state continued to decline.
Ozone occurs naturally in the atmosphere but forms at ground level when car exhaust and industrial emissions react to high temperatures and sunlight.
Exposure to ground-level ozone can intensify allergies or respiratory problems for people who already have them.
Under worse weather conditions, high levels of ozone can create respiratory problems for anyone who goes outside.
An interactive map posted on the EPA's website Thursday showed that based on 2012-14 ozone averages, Pulaski and Crittenden counties were among several dozen counties nationwide that would not be considered in compliance with the new standard. But a second map anticipates that by 2025, nearly all of those counties -- including Pulaski and Crittenden -- will reach compliance without having to take any additional action to reduce emissions.
Compliance with ozone standards is determined by taking the fourth-highest ozone level each year for three years of ozone data, then averaging those numbers.
Springdale and Little Rock had been in compliance with the old standard for a while, but Crittenden County was only recently able to join them after a hot 2012 and mild 2013 and 2014.
When factoring in 2015 ozone season data -- considered May 1 through Sept. 30 -- each ozone monitoring site in Arkansas came in under 70 parts per billion for its three-year average.
Chris Buonanno, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said temperatures in June through September were above average when calculating average maximum temperatures.
August and September were above average when taking the low and high temperatures of each day and dividing them by two -- called the mean temperature, he said. June and July were slightly below.
That's a turn from the past two summers, which both had below-average temperatures and were credited with lower ozone levels during that time.
While ozone levels often spike during hot weather, ozone levels dipped from more than 70 parts per billion in Little Rock and the Memphis metropolitan area to below 70 parts per billion this year, based on ozone season data.
Keogh attributed the drop to reductions in emissions at plants and people continuing to buy cars with lower emissions. She said the trend Arkansas is seeing is reflected nationwide.
Areas that fail to achieve attainment are evaluated by the state to determine how to meet ozone goals. Solutions often involve controls on emissions sources and more intensive permitting, Keogh said.
Non-attainment status creates uncertainty when it comes to issuing permits, which is considered negative from an economic-development standpoint, Keogh said.
While the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality asked earlier this year that the EPA keep the standard of 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air because of uncertainty about the impact of new programs to reduce ozone, Keogh said Thursday that the standard should work out for the state.
"We believe that we can meet those standards and feel like those standards are something to balance public health and economic development," Keogh said.
Keogh said she wouldn't speak for the EPA as to the potential differences in public-health benefits between 70 parts per billion and 65 parts per billion.
She added that a standard of 65 would have placed nearly every area in Arkansas on the non-attainment list.
In the final rule, the EPA said the decision on 70 parts per billion was reached based on four key factors:
• A level of 70 parts per billion is below the "exposure concentrations known to cause the widest range of respiratory effects," which is 80 parts per billion, and "below the lowest exposure concentration shown to cause the adverse combination of decreased lung function and increased respiratory symptoms," which is 72 parts per billion.
• A level of 70 parts per billion will nearly eliminate repeat occurrences of the harmful concentrations
• The new standard will protect a large majority of the population, including children and people with asthma.
• The new level will reduce hospital admissions, emergency rooms visits and premature deaths related to ground-level ozone exposure.
The agency also did an analysis of the rule's effect on employment in the United States, which is not typical in cost-benefit analyses, the agency said.
The agency noted that studies on the effects of environmental regulations show small impact on employment, positive or negative.
The agency wrote that estimations in the case of the new ozone rule were difficult to determine, but it concluded that small increases in employment were possible from the rule in installations of emissions-controlling technology.
In statements released on their websites Thursday, the American Lung Association, the Sierra Club and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce all announced disappointment with the rule.
"Nonetheless, the standard announced today offers significantly greater protection than the previous, outdated standard of 75 ppb," the American Lung Association statement reads. "The American Lung Association urges Members of Congress to defend the Clean Air Act against any attacks that would block, weaken or delay life-saving protections from ozone pollution."
The Sierra Club argued that the new rule is not strict enough, citing the recommendations of scientists and health experts that were rejected during George W. Bush's administration, which set the standard of 75 parts per billion in 2008.
"I'm very disappointed that the EPA and President [Barack] Obama enacted such a weak smog standard, considering how damaging it is to our environment and public health," the environmental group's Beyond Coal initiative spokesman Karen Monahan said in a statement.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests, said in a statement that the new rule ignores continually decreasing ozone levels.
"By requiring a 70 parts per billion (ppb) level, the agency is ignoring calls from the business community and American workers who urged the agency to keep the standard at the current 75 ppb," the statement reads.
Areas won't be designated as in attainment or not in attainment until 2017, when the EPA will consider data from 2014 through 2016.
Metro on 10/02/2015