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EPA Tightens Quality Standards For Ozone



move could spike demand for nonwoven pollution technologies



By Peter Mayberry and Jessica Franken



Published October 7, 2009
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A controversial decision to tighten federal air quality standards for ozone could increase demand for certain nonwoven products.

Indeed, on March 12, 2008, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Stephen Johnson announced the agency is revising its air quality standards for ground-level ozone—a primary component in smog —which is linked to a variety of negative health effects. The new standard lowers the allowable level of ozone from the existing limit of 0.080 parts per million (ppm), averaged over eight hours, to 0.075 ppm.

EPA says the modification to the air pollution standards will save $3 to $17 billion annually in avoided healthcare costs. But industry critics say the decision goes too far and will lead to billions of dollars in annual compliance costs, while environmentalists, public health groups and others say EPA missed the opportunity to protect thousands more people by ignoring the recommendations of its own scientists to establish even lower thresholds.

Regardless of where one stands on the controversy, however, it looks like the changes required under the revised standard could create opportunities for those who manufacture nonwoven pollution control technologies.

Background

The Federal Clean Air Act (CAA) requires EPA to establish maximum limits, or National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), for six principal pollutants—volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxide, ground level ozone, sulfur dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide and particulate matter (PM)that are commonly found across the U.S. and thought to be particularly harmful to public health and the environment. The Clean Air Act instructs EPA to review these air standards every five years and update them when necessary.

Not to be confused with the "good" ozone that is found in the upper regions of the earth's atmosphere and protects us from the sun's harmful rays, "bad" ozone results from a reaction of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), frequently released by industrial facilities and electric utilities, cars, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents. It is, in fact, a known lung irritant that is linked to asthma, respiratory infections, heart and lung disease and thousands of premature deaths each year.

The EPA last updated the limits for permissible levels of ozone in 1997, lowering the allowable amount from 0.120 ppm to 0.80 ppm. But implementation was delayed for several years due to litigation brought by several industry interests and state governments who challenged EPA's authority to issue a rule that would carry with it such significant compliance costs.

Not long after the rule was finalized in 2002, EPA began the process of determining which areas of the country were meeting the new standards, attainment and which were failing, nonattainment. In 2004, EPA announced there were some 474 counties in the U.S. designated as nonattainment areas. Under the CAA, businesses and manufacturing facilities located in nonatainment areas are subject to more stringent permitting, emission control and offsetting requirements.

In June 2007, EPA announced it was considering even stricter ozone air quality standards, but went against the unanimous recommendation of the agency's scientists who had urged standards as low as 0.060 ppm and no higher than 0.070 ppm, and instead suggested a range between 0.070 and 0.075 ppm. The agency also said it would accept public comment on a wide range of options, from lowering the threshold to 0.060 ppm to maintaining the status quo.

The Final Standard

Not surprisingly, EPA was the target of intense lobbying from industry executives, members of Congress, and state and local government leaders, who urged the agency to maintain the former ozone limits, some arguing that the new stricter standards could increase the number of nonattainment counties to more than 1200 and choke these local economies. Manufacturing groups, meanwhile, argued that the costs of additional research and development, control equipment, factory retooling and other capital expenditures needed to comply with the standard would mean an additional $10-22 billion in annual costs, with questionable health and environmental benefits.

At the same time, environmental and public health groups and others maintained their call for lower levels recommended by EPA scientists, noting the agency itself acknowledged that a 0.065 ppm standard would prevent some 3000 to 9200 premature deaths annually versus the 1300 to 3500 prevented by the final standard.

The agency appears to have compromised, adopting a 0.075 ppm limit for both its primary ozone standard, and the same level for its secondary standard, which is intended to protect public welfare by preventing harm to crops, soil, structures and more.

Now that the rule has been finalized, states will need to make recommendations to EPA by March 2009 regarding which areas should be designated as being in nonattainment and EPA is expected to issue final designations by March 2010. States will then have to submit State Implementation Plans outlining how they will meet the ozone control standards, and could include things like tighter controls on industrial facility emissions, additional requirements for transportation sources, gasoline vapor recovery controls and more.

For more information, please visit the EPA website at: http://www.epa.gov/groundlevelozone/actions.html#mar07s.

Peter Mayberry's column appears monthly in Nonwovens Industry.