2000 forecast: Air quality management outlook

The air quality regulatory activity of the 1990s was unprecedented in scope and complexity, and has laid the groundwork for regulatory actions in the year 2000 and beyond. A combination of ongoing and new initiatives will directly impact how industry and other regulated sectors operate in the new millennium.

Attaining standards
Considerable progress was made in decreasing industrial emissions in the 1990s. That is the good news. The bad news is that many densely populated regions of the country continue to have deteriorating air quality. This is particularly the case in regard to ozone and respirable particulate matter. Poor air quality in many regions of the country is largely the result of a decade of industrial expansion and a large increase in vehicle miles traveled by automobiles.

What this means to industry is that siting new plants or modifying existing facilities will be increasingly difficult in these regions. In order to expand, industry will have to purchase expensive emission control equipment and secure emission credits (where available). The alternative is to relocate. However, this is a difficult pill for U.S. industry to swallow, since nonattainment areas represent the regions with the highly trained technical work force necessary for manufacturing expansions. The transportation infrastructure, so important to industry, will also be potentially limited in these areas, further compounding the dilemma. The whole issue of nonattainment area management will be a hot one to follow throughout the next decade.

Hazardous air pollutants
The control of hazardous air pollutants was a cornerstone of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. A decade later, although many standards have been developed, more industry-specific standards will be coming out in the year 2000. The standards require the implementation of maximum achievable control technology (MACT). As of the writing of this article, dozens of MACT standards are presently in development, and a large number will be proposed or finalized in 2000. Examples include the MACT for combustion sources at paper mills and a standard for primary copper smelting.

One important issue involving the control of hazardous air pollutants involves something called "case-by-case" MACT. Under this rule, facilities not yet covered by a federal MACT rule must undergo a MACT type evaluation for any new emission units that are to be constructed. Such reviews are time-consuming, and extend the permitting process significantly.

Transportation and air quality
The issue of air quality and transportation took somewhat of a backseat to the federal industrial standards developed in the past decade. The issue is now extremely important, especially in regions designated in nonattainment with national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).

The governing regulation developed to consider the air quality effects associated with transportation is called the Transportation Conformity Rule. This rule, like most others, finds its origin in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. The significance of the rule is that it mandates that any transportation construction project that receives federal funds, and has the potential for emissions over certain levels, must demonstrate that regional air quality will not be further impaired by the project. This demonstration can be complex and many times requires the inclusion of the project in the regional emission budget, which is linked to the State Implementation Plan (SIP). Another related regulation, aptly named the General Conformity Rule, has the same requirements but pertains to other federally funded construction activities such as military bases and airport expansions. Look for both of these rules to become prominent in this upcoming decade.

Risk Management Plan audits
The inside word from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is that there was concern that the agency did not receive from facilities the number of Risk Management Plan (RMP) submittals expected by the June 1999 deadline. As a result, EPA and state agencies will be embarking on a nationwide auditing program. The intent of the audit will be not only to identify facilities that violated the statute by not submitting plans, but also to identify improperly prepared RMP submittals. As part of this auditing program, it is entirely likely that facilities not falling subject to RMP but still covered by the RMP "general duty" clause will be called on the regulatory carpet. The general duty clause specifies that facilities prepare for and understand the consequences of process risks even if not covered directly by the RMP rule.

Title V continues
The backbone of the stationary source regulatory program in the 1990s was the Title V Operating Permit program. The program had a broad scope that affected thousands of facilities nationwide. The challenge for the year 2000 will be for regulatory agencies to expedite the review of remaining applications in the review cycle and to deal effectively with requested permit revisions. The whole issue of how to deal with permit revisions has become one of the most vexing problems of the Title V process and will continue to be debated throughout the upcoming year.

Global warming
Those individuals who have been in the air quality field for some time can see the writing on the wall. As happened with the control of hazardous air pollutants after Bhopal and the international regulation of ozone depleting substances after the Montreal Protocol, the control of greenhouse gases will be a real issue in the upcoming decade. Although not always in the news, U.S. industry (especially sectors with large greenhouse gas emissions such at coal-fired power plants and cement manufacturing) started taking proactive steps late in the 1990s. These actions will expand into other sectors as it is realized that the control of greenhouse gases must become a component of any company's environmental management policy.

Regulatory jeopardy
On May 14, 1999, a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Circuit Court remanded the revised ozone and particulate matter (PM) standards to EPA for further consideration. The ruling was a result of a legal action filed by the American Trucking Association, the named party challenging the rules. The justification for remanding the NAAQS was largely a constitutional issue. The court argued that EPA acted outside the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution because the Clean Air Act does not provide unlimited authority for establishing air standards. The subsequent appeal filed by EPA was rejected by the court, and the entire action will most likely by heading to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

The final outcome of this legal saga will be important to the air quality field and environmental regulation in general. From an air quality perspective, it will determine if and when the new ozone and PM standards become part of federal law. From an overall viewpoint, it will establish a precedent on how much authority EPA has in establishing new regulatory initiatives. This court challenge will be one of the most important environmental law issues to follow in the year 2000.

On the horizon
Besides the previous issues discussed, there are a variety of other regulatory programs in the works. These developing programs include:

New Source Review (NSR) reform. In 1996, EPA proposed revisions to the complex NSR program. The revised program has been caught up in a lengthy stakeholders review process; however, it should emerge in the year 2000. Most of the changes to the regulation will involve providing more operational flexibility to affected major sources.

Regional Haze Rule. By the middle of the decade, this rule will significantly start to affect major emission sources located in areas proximate to national parks and wilderness areas. These programs will largely be developed on a state level with EPA oversight.

Urban Air Toxics. The EPA has developed a formal program to minimize the exposure of the public in urbanized areas to air pollutants considered harmful. Throughout this decade, smaller and smaller sources will be required to reduce emissions of target compounds. In addition to stationary sources such as dry cleaners, the program may extend to mobile source emission control.

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This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.