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New EPA ozone regs could hurt growth here

By Paul Huggins · 340-2395

Decatur's industrial growth and any major transportation projects likely will face expensive or lengthy obstacles should air quality standards become stricter.

And much of Alabama would be in the same predicament.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to reduce allowable ozone levels from 84 parts per billion to between 70 and 75.

Decatur's three-year average on ozone levels is 78 parts per billion, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

At 70 parts per billion, 14 Alabama counties would fail to comply, and at 75, eight counties would fail, said Dale Hurst, environmental scientist with ADEM.

The EPA said it will even consider lowering the standard to 60 parts per billion, and if it drops below 70, only Sumter County would pass, Hurst said.

Besides having the stigma of being a dirty place to live, which can hurt residential development, all non-compliant communities would face federal intervention that can hinder new highways and new industries.

"I would hope they don't change that," said Lynn Fowler, chairman of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority.

"Anytime you're not under any restrictions, it certainly gives a community a competitive advantage. And having those restrictions certainly would handicap your ability to (recruit industries)," Fowler said.

Hurst said communities that exceed the limits must develop a vehicle air emissions budget and any new transportation project must stay within that budget or the government won't approve it.

"Right now, Morgan County, when you do any transportation projects, once you get the funding you can pretty much just press on and do it," he said.

The Memphis-to-Atlanta highway has already been approved and would not be affected by the proposed changes, but any new offshoots would, Hurst added.

Dewayne Hellums, director of transportation for North-central Alabama Regional Council of Governments, said being in non-compliance would mean a lot more work for his office, but because most highway projects merely redistribute traffic rather than greatly increase it, he didn't expect any other disadvantages.

"It would mean more paperwork, more red tape to get projects through, but I wouldn't see it limiting future projects," he said.

As for how failing to meet ozone standards affects industrial expansion, Hurst said, it wouldn't prevent construction, but a new industry would be required to install the best available control technology and other expensive measures.

"Let's say a major auto plant may want to locate in your county," Hurst said. "You tell them come on in, but you're going to have to do this, that and the other, which is going to cost them millions more dollars, or they can locate in the county two over from you.

'Obstacles in the way'

"It's going to put some obstacles in the way that's going to make them think twice about possibly locating there," he said.

The ozone restriction is one of the reasons Honda located its auto plant in Talladega County and Mercedes located in Tuscalooa County, said Jim Searcy, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Board that serves the five-county area around Birmingham.

Both Jefferson and Shelby counties have exceeded EPA ozone standards in recent years, but industries can go 30 miles in either direction and it's no longer an issue, he said.

"In all honesty, it depends on who you're competing against. If it's Birmingham against Atlanta or Nashville or Memphis or comparable sized city, they have the same issue. We're competing on an equal footing with them," Searcy said.

The EPA had its fifth of five public hearings on the ozone issue Wednesday in Atlanta. It plans to make a decision in March.

The EPA has said it also will consider leaving the ozone standards at current levels.

Hurst said ADEM expects the limit it to fall between 70 and 75 parts per billion because that's where EPA has focused its attention.

What is ozone?

Ozone is a highly reactive gas, and depending on where it is, it can affect the planet in good and bad ways.

Stratospheric ozone is formed naturally through the interaction of ultraviolet radiation from the sun with Earth’s oxygen. This layer extends from about six to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface and reduces the amount of harmful UV radiation reaching Earth’s surface.

Tropospheric (ground level) ozone forms primarily from reactions between two types of pollutants: volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

These reactions depend on the presence of heat and sunlight, meaning more ozone forms in summer months.

Vehicles emit nitrogen oxide, as do power plants and industrial plants. Significant sources of volatile organic compounds come from sources such as gasoline pumps, chemical plants, oil-based paints, auto body shops, print shops, consumer products and some trees.

Environmental Protection Agency

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