EPA formulates new Ozone Standards

By Catherine Thomasson, MD of Portland, Oregon. Catherine is the Chair for Environmental Work Group of the Oregon Medical Association.

The Sleeping Giant has awoken and is coming back with a vengeance. After nearly a decade of skirting environmental rules under the Bush Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is, once again, ready to protect the environment. Since President Obama took office, the EPA has ruled that CO2 is a danger to human health and welfare, stopped numerous Mountain Top Removal mining permits and now is tightening regulation on ground level ozone.

Ground-level ozone, or smog, is formed when Nitrogen Oxides (NOX) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), two pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants as well as cars and trucks, are exposed to sunlight and heat. Ground-level ozone is both bad for our health and our environment.

Ozone, or smog pollution, poses serious health threats. Scientists have compared exposure to smog pollution as getting sunburn on the lungs. Even at low levels smog can aggravate asthma, cause chest pain and cough, worsen respiratory problems, and cause permanent lung damage. Children, seniors and those with lung diseases, like chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema, are especially at risk.

The EPA is considering lowering the allowable limit for ozone which currently sits at 75 parts per billion. Smog is harmful even at very low levels, which is why the EPA should set the standard at the more protective limit of 60 parts per billion (ppb).

Strengthening the smog safeguards could help prevent thousands of hospital visits, heart and asthma attacks and millions of missed work and school days—also saving billions in health costs.

What does this mean for Oregon? Under these new rules some counties, including Multnomah County, will fall into “non-attainment,” which means that EPA will formally recognize that Portland’s air is dirtier than allowed, and so is threatening public health and the environment.

Multnomah County will be asked to put together plans for cleaning up its air. These plans can include ways to clean up existing polluters, like adding scrubbers to dirty coal plants, and reducing emissions from transportation through increased mass transit, smarter land use and cleaner vehicles. While Multnomah County is in non-attainment, it cannot move forward with any plans that would prevent it from coming back into attainment and meeting the new smog standard.

So as you can imagine, across the United States, big industry is fighting this tooth and nail.

EPA must stand strong for public health against Big Coal and other polluters who are fighting to protect the dirty, unhealthy status-quo. While health advocates and environmentalists are very happy to see EPA back at work ready to propose better protections from smog, they exhort you to comment on the proposed rule.

The current smog standards fail to protect the health of millions of Americans. It is vital that the EPA strengthen these standards.

  • Joanne Rigutto (unverified)

    Are there coal fired power plants in Portland? Plus, doesn't the Boardman plant have scrubbers or other mitigation strategies implemented so that ground level ozone greating compounds aren't emmitted in such quantities that the air quality in Portland is impacted to such a level that the city is out of compliance?

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    Remember, the $500 million plan to add exhaust emissions controls to Boardman will cause the plant to burn MORE coal for every unit of electricity delivered, meaning MORE CO2 per kWh.

    The only rational answer is to STOP. COAL. IN. OREGON. Period. The Boardman coal units can be replaced in less than 18 months with 2 natural gas fired units for an immediate sharp drop in CO2 and an end to the mercury, polonium, sulfur dioxide emissions. Plus, Boardman is well-sited for a concentrating solar power array pilot, which could use the existing infrastructure and distribution network and continue to provide employment in Morrow County.

    "Environmentalists" who propose helping Boardman continue to operate as a coal plant are like the medical folks who bought into the "low tar cigarette" scam -- they made the problem worse because they thought that asking for what science required was too "extreme." But reality doesn't care what the labels are -- Coal is the enemy, and anything that helps PGE put coal profits ahead of public health has to be stopped.

  • Scott in Damascus (unverified)

    But during the Olympics the energy industry aired hundreds of commercials that told me "clean" coal is the future.

    I feel so mislead.

  • Doug (unverified)

    "Portland’s air is dirtier than allowed, and so is threatening public health and the environment."


    Catherine, either Portland isn't the Amerika's greenest city after all, or your stats are all screwed up.


  • Doran (unverified)

    Thanks for the article, Dr. Thomasson.

    I'm just curious what this means to all of the cyclists, myself included, who breathe so much of Multnomah county's "non-attainment" air. Not that this will keep me from biking, but it does give one pause to consider the long-term effects of "getting a sunburn on your lungs" every day.

  • (Show?)

    Something is not quite right with equating Boardman's pollution and Multnomah's air. Portland's ozone events are rare and the average is well below even the newest proposed standards. I suspect our future is summer days with county-wide driving bans, which might not be a bad idea. We should welcome a stricter standard for onzone. But, I am suspicious that any changes to Boardman will affect Portland air quality.

    The problem with Boardman is our statewide dependence on it for our base load electricity. Unless we are willing to cut electric consumption dramatically and keep cutting as the population grows, we need a replacement for Boardman. This is not just Portland's problem.

    For the short term, we need some suggestions for a replacement fuel that is free of nitrogen and mercury contaminants. For the long term, we have to ramp up research spending for a carbon neutral biological source for a fuel. But that is a different discussion.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    There also needs to be research on indoor ozone standards, as many locally use ozone produced by UV-C bulbs to destroy illegal odors.

  • Jeff (unverified)

    The country is in the middle of an economic crisis, and EPA wants to fiddle with ozone standards. Great, here comes the 55mph speed limit again.

    The last time the nation dropped speed limits, we suffered for it economically. 55 means goods get to you slower, truckers drive fewer miles and charge more for them.

    55 never saved more fuel (causing less pollution) than keeping tires properly inflated.

    This is supposed to reduce ground level ozone? Here's a thought: cans of Volvo's PremAir coating so all cars' radiators can be ground level ozone eaters.

    All this, to save an estimated 12,000 lives. I'm sorry if this sounds callous, but it's not worth the cost. I'm willing to bet more children get beaten or starve each year due to this bad economy, and the stress it puts single parents under.

    Government programs are wasteful, never work, cost more than desired. Why is it we know this, yet expect a government agency dealing with environmental issues to be any different than one dealing with, say, national health insurance.

  • Charlie Peters (unverified)

    Money available to clean air and improve smog program

    Charlie Peters, Clean Air Performance Professionals, March 22, 2010

    The Smog Check issue has been under continuous legislative debate since 1993. AB 2289 by Eng is an opportunity to improve program performance and public support.

    We at the Clean Air Performance Professionals propose “reasonably available control measures” to improve California Smog Check performance. Consider a Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) quality audit to improve smog check performance.

    We propose using the CAP cars and funds to provide a random quality audit (or secret shopper) of smog check providers. Audits that result in the car’s not being in compliance should be handled similarly to the former Consumer Repair and Education Workforce program. The Bureau of Automotive Repair program did not fine the licensees nor did it involve coercion. But when the question of “what would you like to do?” was asked, the shop took care of business and usually elected to fix the car.

    The average smog check failure repair is about $ 150.00 state wide. The motorist pays about the same at the average repair station and the CAP station. The average CAP repair is about $350.00. Many cars are not brought into compliance.

    To level the smog check failure repair playing field so more cars meet standards after repair, the whole smog check market should be subject to a CAP random audit.

    Around 1985, BAR started a “missing part” audit. In 1991 that program was stopped, The difference was a 300 percent change in result in finding the missing part.

    When BAR ran less than one audit per station per year, the result was a change in behavior that started at more than an 80 percent rate, but moved to less than 20 percent rate of noncompliance.

    The difference was a 300 percent change in result in finding the missing part. If the CAP audit was addressing the issue of repair compliance rather than just finding a missing part, the results may be the same or a 300 percent improvement in compliance. With the missing part program, a follow-up audit with increasing demands lift the stations no options but to find the missing part or be removed from the game.

    There are huge inconsistencies from Smog Check station to station and with BAR representatives. For BAR to decide a car is not in compliance, rules of Smog Check must be clarified. Money is available for the CAP program. It can be used for contracted scrap and repairs, or some of the funds can be used to evaluate and support improved performance of licensed small business. The cars and funds are the same, but the results may be credit for 2,000 tons per day in pollution prevention credit in the State Implementation Plan, rather than our current credit of fewer than 400 tons per day.

    The governor and state Legislature would get the credit for improved performance. Performance improvements would be accomplished at a cost of less than $500.00 per ton. And program illusions would be reduced in 1 year.

    Charlie Peters is president of Clean Air Performance Professionals.

    CAPP contact: Charlie Peters (510) 537-1796 [email protected]

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