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Ozone pollution, China and the controversy that dogs state regulators

Will Utah be the first interior state in the country with new designation?

Bumper-to-bumper traffic heads south on State Street during rush hour in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic heads south on State Street during rush hour in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Utah clean air advocates say state regulators and Utah’s top politicians are trying to skirt instituting tougher smog busting controls by relying on a technical analysis paid for by industry and in contradiction to the state’s own data.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Utah clean air advocates say state regulators and Utah’s top politicians are trying to skirt instituting tougher smog busting controls by relying on a technical analysis paid for by industry and in contradiction to the state’s own data.

By applying for a 179B demonstration from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that asserts the northern Wasatch Front would meet the federal ozone standard if not for international transport of human-made ozone contributors, advocates say the state is shirking its duty to bring ozone under control.

“This is one of the most critical decisions impacting air quality in Utah. It is very significant,” said Joro Walker, general counsel with Western Resource Advocates, which along with other groups, filed a formal objection included in the 179B demonstration application.

The northern Wasatch Front was designated as in marginal nonattainment for ozone and faces a more serious classification to “moderate” in a decision expected by the EPA this fall if the federal agency rejects the 179B demonstration.

Ozone a dangerous, nagging problem

The Division of Air Quality’s own data shows that despite a nearly 40% decrease in the precursor emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides — the chemicals that react with sunlight to form ozone — ozone levels have not decreased in the northern Wasatch Front during the ensuing years.

Data from EPA regulators show that about 9% to 20% of ozone in Utah is human-caused, and of that, 63% comes from mobile sources such as tail pipes, 23% is from area sources and the rest is from industrial sources.

That means the overwhelming rest of ozone ranges from 50% to 55% of either background or international emissions — a heavy lift for regulators to get a handle on.

Bryce Bird, the director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the Utah Petroleum Association and the Utah Mining Association paid for a more technical EPA modeling process not available in-house at the division. It is now starting its own photochemical analysis.

It put forth arguments that the “if not for” international ozone pollutants provision required for 179B demonstration, the northern Wasatch Front would retain its current classification, but it remains to be seen if the EPA will approve the findings in the document.

Both Bird and Rikki Henrko-Browning reject the accusation by advocates that the state is trying to shirk its efforts to further tamp pollutants that cause the formation of ozone.

“The 179B does not take you out of nonattainment. We are still in nonattainment, and we still have to identify control strategies. We still have to meet the standard. We’re not off the hook for that,” Bird said.

Background ozone and international transport of ozone causing pollutants are nothing new in the West. The EPA issued a white paper on the issue in 2015 and additionally provided regulators with guidance on seeking the 179B demonstration.

Several states in the West are grappling with getting ozone under control aside from Utah, including Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Texas. Bird added that international transport of harmful emissions has been a concern for Utah regulators and a successful determination by the EPA could elevate it as a national policy issue.

El Paso was granted a 179B demonstration in 2004 for ozone for the pollutant drifting into its state from international sources, and San Antonio has an application pending with the EPA. Imperial County in California was granted a demonstration, but that was for the fine particulate pollution of PM10. If Utah were to obtain the 179B demonstration, it would be the first non-border state to achieve the status, but it is not a novel inclusion that is precluded under the Clean Air Act’s provisions.

The influence of Asia

In 2017, Princeton and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study that said collectively, China, North Korea and South Korea, Japan, India and other south Asian countries have tripled their emissions of nitrogen oxide, a precursor to the formation of ozone, and it was causing a problem in the West.

Ground-level ozone is harmful to human health. It worsens asthma attacks and leads to difficulty in breathing.

The Princeton/NOAA study was unique in that it was one of the first research efforts that categorizes the extent to which rising Asian emissions contribute to U.S. ozone formation.

At the time in response to that study, Bird said even rural areas of the state and other parts of the West suffered from above-the-threshold levels of ozone, including Great Basin National Park, which is hundreds of miles away from industrial sources.

A NASA-led study warned in 2015 that when the EPA lowered the standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, it left little room for some Western states to have any local production of ozone given that background ozone was already so high.

But Walker and others warn that by seeking the demonstration, Utah is severely jeopardizing the health of residents along the northern Wasatch Front.

“Ozone concentrations have been associated with significant adverse health impacts. We are dealing with a situation where they are asking to be let off the hook. ... It is not like Utah is alone in this,” Walker said. “There are ways out there to make reductions. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Walker also castigated the industry-driven modeling that she said even state air quality regulators and top political officials received in a “lukewarm” manner at best.

“It is not an overwhelmingly convincing demonstration,” she said, pointing to a record of internal correspondence among top Utah officials that indicated some reluctance to have industry so heavily involved in both the analysis and the submission of the 179B demonstration to the EPA.

But Henrko-Browning said the third-party firm that did the analysis is highly respected, has been used by state agencies before, including Utah regulators, and provided additional science-based technical expertise that was not available to regulators at the Division of Air Quality.

“The objective of the study was to determine the extent of international transport based on DAQ’s own modeling. There was never any pressure on DAQ to use that study. It was made available as a resource,” she said.

Bird said the division did two types of modeling that looked at international sources of human-caused pollution leading to ozone formation on days when the northern Wasatch Front exceeded the federal standard.

What the division found is that international transport had little to no effect on those high-exceedance days.

It also did modeling that backtracked from high-exceedance days for ozone, which again, showed little to no impact from international transport of pollutants.

What the broader consultants’ study did find — and in agreement with general science from the EPA — is that the buildup of international emissions is an event that occurs over time and not necessarily from meteorological conditions like southerly winds that usher in a sudden burst of pollution.

Bird said high levels of ozone exist in the area because of warm temperatures aggravated by a stagnant system of high pressure, particularly in high elevation locations.

The division was using modeling at its disposal that looked at single days and isolated weather conditions.

Walker criticized the consultant-fostered modeling as a way for any state in the West to take a pass on meeting more stringent pollution controls.

Public left out?

“Their proposal is specifically asking the EPA to relieve them of their obligation to reduce emissions according to the deadline set by the Clean Air Act,” she said, adding, too, that the public was not allowed to provide meaningful input and participate in discussions.

But both Bird and Henrko-Browning counter that the third-party analysis and subsequent analysis by the division will allow regulators to arrive at science-based pollution control technologies that are the most effective — not just a shotgun scatter approach that may not result in meaningful reductions.

“Everything that has been available for us to do within the Clean Air Act we have done, but we are still seeing ozone values above the standard,” Bird said. “We have already gone one level above what is required under marginal nonattainment, and while we are seeing reductions in nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, we are not seeing the reduction in ozone.”