Imagine trying to tell a shipyard worker in Pascagoula that he can no longer drive his old, oil-burning pickup truck to work because of new federal clean air standards.
It is almost a sacrilege to think about making it illegal for old vehicles to be driven on the highways in Mississippi — no matter how much black smoke is coming out of the tailpipe. But in the future residents of the Coast and in DeSoto County might have to choose between placing tighter regulations on emissions from vehicles and power plants or not being able to allow the permitting of new industry that produces air pollution.
The idea behind the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards regarding ozone is that, in order to protect human health, the amount of air pollution allowed in any particular region should be limited. Ozone, the major ingredient in smog, can cause chest pain, breathing problems and congestion. Ozone can also damage forests and crops.
The three Coast counties and DeSoto County, which is part of the Memphis metropolitan area, are expected to be in “non-attainment” with new EPA guidelines for ozone. Jimmy Palmer, executive director, Mississippi Department of Environment Quality (DEQ), said the high ozone levels may be a result of air pollution coming from nearby neighboring metropolitan areas.
Palmer said there are two new ambient air standards that are causing concern about impacts to future development. Besides the ozone standard, the EPA has also adopted a new, more stringent standard for particulate matter. The state is just starting to install monitors for measuring particulate matter, so it isn’t known yet whether that will be of concern. But monitoring of ozone has been done around the state for years. That data leads DEQ to believe DeSoto and the Coast counties will not meet the new standards.
“Over the years we have seen ozone levels in three areas of Mississippi which were beginning to bump up against the old standard,” Palmer said. “One is DeSoto County because it is now part of the Memphis metropolitan area. Memphis has had worsening air problems for a number of years, and of course, you can’t contain that air inside the state of Tennessee. The levels in DeSoto County have been creeping up for several years. In 1997, our monitor up there measured three or four exceedances of old ozone standard. But all of that essentially became irrelevant when the new standard — which is significantly lower than the old standard — was approved. We believe with certainty that DeSoto County will not meet the new standards.”
The same is the case for Jackson and Hancock counties where ozone monitors have been in use. While the DEQ has not monitored Harrison County, DEQ expects similar results that would place all three Coast counties in non-attainment with the new standards.
A third area in the state which had monitors showing high ozone levels was Sharkey County. Those violations were puzzling to DEQ because of the lack of significant sources of pollution in that county. DEQ believes that the ozone violations may have been due to some high- altitude importation of ozone from another region in the country. If so, the high ozone levels were a freak occurrence unlikely to be repeated.
For the rest of 1999, DEQ will be collecting monitoring data and deciding options for dealing with the issue.
Palmer said if an area goes to non-attainment, the immediate impact will be in the area of new air permits or the expansion of facilities that have current air permits.
“That becomes an immediate and serious economic development issue wherever there is a non-attainment issue,” Palmer said. “For the first time in Mississippi history, when a county or counties become a non-attainment area, we will not be allowed to issue permits for new sources of air pollution. We are trying to get elected officials and local economic development officials to understand the implications of that. This will happen in spring of 2000. The economic development consequences will be very real, and could be very serious.”
There are different ways of dealing with the problems. One is called “emissions trading” or Cap and Trade which allows companies to buy and sell air pollution capacity under existing permits. Emissions trading is already common in other areas of the country, but has never been used before in Mississippi.
As an example of emissions trading, if a big industry in Jackson County wanted to expand, it could look for another industry in the area willing to reduce its air emissions. That would create additional capacity for the industry that wants to expand. And since reducing emissions is more economical for some industries than others, an industry with a high cost of reducing emission might buy capacity from an industry with a lower cost of reducing emissions.
Palmer said other potential avenues for dealing with non-attainment include passing an anti-tampering law regarding vehicle emissions systems. These types of laws are common in other, more densely populated states like California that have serious air pollution problems.
“If the Legislature wanted to adopt a law like that, which would be enforceable by state and local law enforcement agencies, that is one of the things that might be done to allow us to continue issuing air permits,” Palmer said.
The program would include a vehicle inspection and maintenance program. Once a year, tailpipe emissions would be measured. Vehicles failing the test would not be allowed on the highways unless the vehicle was repaired to meet the standards. Some people disconnect emissions’ control equipment on vehicles, and that would not be allowed if a anti-tampering law was passed.
One of the largest sources of air pollution emissions on the Coast comes from power plants. Power plants could be required to reduce emissions, but that would increase the cost of electricity for users in the area.
Another option for the state is a step between attainment and non-attainment called transitional non-attainment. Palmer said a state that wants to put itself in transitional non- attainment status must do very thorough inventories of air emissions in the area that might be non attainment.
“We’re actually going to have to do some measuring of emissions from industries, vehicular traffic, and even from forests and natural areas,” Palmer said. “Then we’ll have to do some sophisticated modeling of air transport in the area so we can show if some of the problem is coming from other areas. We think some of the problem we are experiencing in Hancock County is coming from Louisiana or as far away as Texas. Similarly, in Jackson County we are getting western transport from Mobile County. We need some computer modeling to verify this. Then in the transition plan we would tell EPA what we will do while moving towards attainment. This will give us a somewhat longer time for compliance with the new standard.”
But Palmer said there could be some advantages going into straight non-attainment. That would be the case if it is determined that the way to deal with non-attainment is more control over air emissions from power plants and industrial facilities. It is possible the industrial facilities and power plants could be required to invest in additional air pollution control devices, but that won’t be known until the state’s modeling studies are completed.
DEQ has requested about $300,000 from the state Legislature for the modeling studies, and expects the funding to be approved. DEQ is working with similar agencies in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and even Florida to pool resources to do the trans-state modeling studies for as little money as possible.
Palmer said that not everyone agrees the new EPA standards are justified by scientific evidence.
“EPA came to their own
conclusion that there were certain population