Letter to the Editor: The Clean Air Act and how it is affecting Perry, Cape Girardeau, and Bollinger counties

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In March 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a new, stricter air quality standard for ground-level ozone. This is the second time the standard has been lowered (made stricter) since the 1990 federal Clean Air Act Amendments. Ozone in the stratosphere forms a protective layer against harmful rays from the sun. However, ozone at ground level is a strong lung irritant that damages lung tissue, aggravates heart and respiratory disease and can even cause problems for healthy individuals who spend a lot of time outdoors. It forms when pollution from sources such as power plants, vehicles and certain types of industries chemically react on warm, sunny days with low winds.

Compliance with the standard is evaluated with a network of ozone monitors. Previous versions of the standard, set in 1990 and in 1997, only recorded violations in St. Louis and Kansas City, the major metropolitan areas of the state. However, the new standard is so strict that even monitors in rural areas are recording violations, including the Farrar monitor located in Perry County.

When EPA establishes a new air quality standard, the provisions of the federal Clean Air Act trigger a process whereby EPA must designate areas of the state violating the standard as "nonattainment areas." Nonattainment designations are usually made on a county by county basis. EPA designates a county as nonattainment if it has a monitor violating the standard or if they find the air pollution emissions from the county are significantly contributing to a violation at a downwind monitor in another county. The Act also requires the state to provide recommendations to EPA, but in the end, it is EPA's final decision. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is the agency responsible for developing this recommendation.

Emissions causing ozone to form can travel long distances, even across several states. This makes it difficult to determine which areas are causing or contributing to violations of the standard. It also makes the process of determining where air pollution reductions are needed to improve air quality very complex. Because Perry County has a violating monitor, the federal Clean Air Act requires EPA to designate it as a nonattainment area unless the air quality improves prior to EPA making the final designations. (Compliance is based on a three-year average of monitoring data.) EPA will also evaluate whether emissions from adjacent and nearby counties, including Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties, are contributing to violations at the Perry County monitor.

Therefore, if the Perry County monitor continues to violate the standard, EPA will designate Perry County as nonattainment. However, the status of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties are less clear-cut. EPA will have to determine whether the emissions coming from these adjacent counties are significantly contributing to the violations at the Perry County monitor. EPA's answer to this question will determine what, if any, additional counties are included in the nonattainment area.

During last summer and fall, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted a series of stakeholder meetings to gather input from citizens in affected areas of the state to help them develop a recommendation. County officials, local government representatives and economic development staff were invited to attend. Because one of the monitors violating the new standard is in Perry County, the department held a series of three meetings in the Perry/Cape Girardeau area. In December 2008, the department held a formal public hearing. Several citizens, businesses and government officials provided written comments and/or oral testimony. The primary issue of concern expressed by those testifying has to do with the effect a designation of nonattainment will have on economic growth in the area. A nonattainment area can bring with it stricter controls on emissions from business, industry and, sometimes, vehicles.

The department thoroughly considered all comments and has developed a recommendation to designate Perry County as "nonattainment" (as expressly required by the federal Clean Air Act.) The department did not recommend a nonattainment designation for Cape Girardeau or Bollinger counties. EPA will probably make final designations in 2010, but according to the Clean Air Act, can make them no later than March 2011.

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