Lafourche joins coalition to fight proposed EPA rules

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The Lafourche Parish council voted last Tuesday to help pay to fight new air quality standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that could hinder the local economy.

The EPA has proposed a reduction in the allowable levels of ozone gas created when air pollutants are released into the atmosphere. Local industry representatives say that lowering the allowable ozone concentration would push the area over the limit, and the consequences would be incredibly burdensome.

“The EPA is going to be coming down with these air quality strict guidelines and it’s basically going to shut us down,” said Jerry LaFont, Lafourche Parish Councilman, District 8.

The EPA has proposed lowering the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone from the current limit of 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70ppb, or maybe even to 65 ppb.

Ozone is a greenhouse gas that can cause damage to the lungs and exacerbate lung disease, according to the EPA’s website. Ozone is created when air pollutants like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides cook in the sun. The end result is commonly known as smog.

The South Central Planning and Development Commission represents the economic interests of six parishes in south-central Louisiana and is partnering with them to fight the proposed changes and prepare to comply with the new guidelines should they be approved.

Commission CEO Kevin Belanger said the EPA’s proposed changes to ozone limits from the current limit to 65 or 70 ppb could end up costing the area billions of dollars.

Belanger’s request is that the governments of the six parishes it serves – Lafourche, Terrebonne, Assumption, St. James, St. John and St. Charles – and industry equitably split a three-year, $180,000 initiative to save much more than that in the future.

“We’re asking local governments to pony up little money as compared to the impact, and we’re telling the private sector that we understand what you’re up against. Let’s help you help us and let us help you and this will be collectively a good thing,” Belanger said.

Most of the money – $135,000 – will pay the salary of a full-time employee who is familiar with the EPA’s science and terms. A total of $10,000 will go toward travel and lodging, $10,000 for training, $5,000, for overhead, $10,000 for hardware and supplies and $10,000 for miscellaneous expenses.

Among governments, the plan would split the dollars according to each parish’s share of the area’s total emissions. Lafourche would contribute $6,030 (6.7 percent), Terrebonne $5,130 (5.7 percent), Assumption $2,340 (3.6 percent) St. John $11,520 (12.8 percent), St. James $18,630 (20.7 percent) and St. Charles $45,450 (50.5 percent) to the account over the next three years – adding up to $90,000 total. Industry would contribute the other $90,000 over the next three years.

“If you look at the whole picture, $6,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend,” said Lafourche Parish District 7 Councilman L. Phillip Gouaux.

“It’s a small amount to keep industry going,” Jerry LaFont added.

Belanger said he met with industry representatives last month and expects them to be on board.

Should the EPA lower the ozone NAAQS to 70 ppb, 23 parishes across the state would instantly be noncompliant, including both Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, according to the SCPDC.

“Well, we know it would happen if [the ozone limit] went down to 65 [pbb], but at 70 [ppb], we’re just right on the cusp,” said Leo Maretta, regional transportation manager at the SCPDC.

In determining if a region is compliant with standards, the EPA averages the concentration of ozone gas over the previous three years. A region may have been below the limit the last year, but if previous years were over the limit, then the average may also be over the limit.

Over the last three years, the Houma-Thibodaux area had an average ozone concentration of 70.67 ppb. Lowering ozone standards to 70 ppb would put the area over the limit for at least a year if the ozone concentration for 2015 stays the same as 2014’s value.

If the standard was lowered to 65 ppb ozone concentration, then Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes would definitely be non-compliant, Maretta said.

Baton Rouge has been noncompliant since 2008, according to the EPA’s website.

The EPA imposes restrictions on non-compliant areas until their three-year average ozone concentration falls below the limit.

One restriction is on new air quality permits. Should the region become non-compliant with new ozone limits, any business that applies for an air permit would have to off-set their emissions by convincing another existing company in the same non-compliance area to release fewer pollutants in quantities equal to what the new company plans on releasing, said Brian Johnston, a senior environmental scientist in the air permits division of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“If a company can’t secure the necessary offset, they can’t get their private permit,” Johnston said. He said it wouldn’t really affect small companies, like say, dry cleaners or gas stations, but would definitely affect new industrial operations.

The state would also have to submit a plan to the EPA for bringing the area into compliance, Johnston said.

The number and severity of restrictions is determined by how far over the limit a non-compliant area is, Maretta said. Aside from requiring big polluters to buy expensive new equipment, he said that restraints could range from restrictions on when residents can mow their lawns to requiring specially formulated fuels and emissions inspections for personal and commercial vehicles.

“If we want to continue to grow in the way that Louisiana has traditionally grown in the past couple of decades,” Maretta said, “…You’ll have to buy offset credits and you’ll have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops that the EPA [imposes]…”

“Over the years, the EPA has steadily reduced the ozone concentration and it has been very, very important to the people who suffer from respiratory problems,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist for the Louisiana Environmental Action Agency and expert on air pollution.

Subra said that news reports often bemoan the cost burden placed on industry to meet air quality standards, but never mention the benefits to public health. She said the cost benefits to people with poor respiratory health would outweigh the costs of meeting lowered air pollutant thresholds that industrial companies would shoulder.