More than half of South Carolina’s counties, including Richland and Lexington, are in danger of falling out of compliance with tougher federal smog standards that could make it harder for industries to expand in the Palmetto State, regulators say.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, which could take effect in the next two years, are intended to clean up the air by reducing ground-level ozone, a lung irritant and a key ingredient in smog. People with asthma and other breathing disorders are particularly vulnerable to ozone pollution.
But in a letter last month to state lawmakers, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said tighter ozone standards also would have economic consequences — unless the state takes action to clear up smoggy skies.
Industries could have to adopt the most effective pollution control equipment available, regardless of cost, DHEC director Catherine Templeton said in her letter to legislators. That could cost millions of extra dollars for industries that already have spent tens of millions instituting tougher controls for other types of air pollution.
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Failing to comply with the clean air standards could impede counties’ economic development and business expansion, the letter said. Templeton’s letter said the state could lose federal transportation funds and road projects could be delayed if counties fall out of compliance.
In addition to the Columbia area, Greenville, Charleston, Florence and Aiken counties also could find themselves out of compliance with the tighter standards, according to DHEC’s letter and accompanying chart.
“These added regulatory burdens would add costs to new projects and place the state at a competitive disadvantage compared to areas that meet the EPA standards,’’ Templeton’s letter said.
Despite Templeton’s concern, several factors could help the state stay in compliance.
In estimating that 25 of 46 counties are at risk of failing the standard, DHEC based its calculations on a restrictive limit that may not come to pass. The EPA could drop the ozone limit from 75 parts per billion to 65 parts per billion, but those who follow air issues say the proposed standard may wind up only at 70 parts per billion. DHEC’s estimate was at 65 parts per billion.
At the same time, decisions by utilities to close coal-fired power plants in South Carolina also may help reduce ozone pollution, since these plants are major sources of the contamination. Santee Cooper and SCE&G have said they intend to close as many as five coal-plants in coming years.
“The closure of coal plants in the entire eastern U.S. will certainly mean cleaner air,’’ said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group in Washington.
Meanwhile, researchers at Rice University released a study Monday showing that ground level ozone levels are falling faster than projected because of federal controls on a key pollutant that contributes to ozone.
Still, Templeton said South Carolina should not sit by and watch.
Templeton said DHEC will work with industrial plants and motorists to reduce air pollution. She urged taking voluntary measures, such as reducing idling time for cars, as one way to clean up the air.
“An anti-idling campaign is what we’re going to roll out,’’ she said. “It’s an educational program.’’
Otis Rawl, president of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said industries have been “demonized’’ for an array of air pollution problems when automobiles are as great, if not a greater, cause. He suggested tighter control of automobile pollution.
“We’re going to have to go back and look at maybe some emissions policies, vehicular standards, whether it is on trucks or automobiles,’’ he said. “That’s our biggest issue right now.’’
Ground-level ozone is formed when pollution from power plants, factories and cars mixes with sunlight on hot summer days. This concoction creates smog and takes a toll on people who are outside, particularly for extended periods of time.
Exposure to ozone for extended periods can cause chest pain, coughing and throat irritation, according to the EPA. It also can worsen lung diseases, such as bronchitis and asthma, and permanently scar lung tissue, the EPA says. Those with lung disease and children, whose lungs are still developing, are at greatest risk.
DHEC has led efforts in the past to keep the state in attainment with federal air pollution standards, and to some degree, the effort has been successful.
Overall, South Carolina’s air quality is better than that found in major cities, such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and, even Charlotte. Part of only one county — York — is out of compliance with existing ozone standards, mainly because it is in metro Charlotte.
But the EPA has through the years been pushing tighter controls on smog pollution that would affect a wider part of the country.
The EPA toughened the ozone standard from 84 parts per billion in the 1990s to 75 parts per billion under President George W. Bush. Now, the rules would drop the standard to between 60 parts per billion and 70 parts per billion.
Environmentalists say the latest standard is long overdue as a means to protect people’s health. A scientific panel of experts recommended the standard be dropped below 70 parts per billion under President Bush, but his administration balked at adopting such a tough rule, citing impacts on industry. In 2011, President Obama backed away from tightening the ozone standard.
Now, however, Obama has won re-election — and those who follow air pollution issues say the tougher rule is likely to resurface before he leaves office. A new rule is expected to be proposed in 2014.
“I’m confident we’ll see the standard set at 70 or below,’’ said John Walke, who tracks federal air pollution policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.