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Phoenix Valley likely to see stricter ozone regulations to comply with EPA standards

Experts say it’s unlikely that the greater Phoenix area can see a significant reduction in ozone levels by 2024.

PHOENIX (CN) — A region covering most of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area — roughly the size of Connecticut — may see tightening regulations as early as next year to comply with Environmental Protection Agency clean air standards.

More than one in three Americans live in an area with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association, and the Grand Canyon state is no exception. While the overall air quality of the region has improved over the last 20 years, experts told Arizona lawmakers in a Monday joint legislative ad hoc committee meeting that more drastic measures will need to be taken to ensure the health and safety of Valley residents. 

The ALA’s annual “state of the air” report clocked the Phoenix Metropolitan Area as fifth worst in the nation for high ozone days. Each annual report compiles a three-year running average. This year’s report covers 2019 through 2021.

Over the three years, the metro averaged 41.2 “high ozone days,” per year. The acceptable standard, according to the ALA, is three days per year. 

Ozone is a gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms formed by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles and power plants, volatile organic compounds known as hydrocarbons, and sunlight. Too much ozone in the air can inflame or damage airways, increase susceptibility to lung infections and even aggravate pre-existing lung diseases like asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The EPA sets the safe standard for ozone levels at 70 parts per billion.

The metro was ranked 7th worst for annual particle pollution and 13th worst for daily particle pollution out of more than 200 metropolitan areas. 

The region passes EPA standards for particle pollution, despite low rankings, but it fails when it comes to ozone. Currently categorized as a “moderate” ozone standard nonattainment area, the region will be recategorized to “serious” if it doesn’t reduce its average ozone levels from 77 to 70 parts per billion. 

“If we do not develop a plan of reasonable measures to conform to ozone standards, the EPA office in San Francisco can step in and do it for us,” said Ed Zuercher, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments. 

The MAG is a council of governments that represents 27 cities and towns across Maricopa County and portions of Pinal County as well as three Tribal nations. It’s responsible for regional air quality planning, and can only make suggestions to lawmakers and other agencies to take action in compliance with EPA standards. 

Tim Franquist, environmental director for the Maricopa Association of Governments, said avoiding the “serious” categorization in 2024 will be difficult and very unlikely. 

“These are things that do have to be built and constructed,” he said. “By the time we get these technologies in place and the laws can be federally enforceable, I think the very real likelihood is that it’s the better part of 18 months to 24 months before it’s feasible. 

Right now there are 90 control measures in place in the region, including vehicle emission testing, emission controls on major businesses, clean burning fuels and altering qualifications for business permits. 

If the MAG is upgraded to “serious” nonattainment, it will have three years to meet EPA standards before it is again recategorized to “severe.” With a higher categorization come more reduction measures. Franquist said most businesses will start seeing significant restrictions in “serious” nonattainment as emission offset requirements for businesses will become higher.

MAG staff was set to discuss and vote on a draft list of suggested reduction measures on Wednesday, but canceled the meeting to allow more time for conversation and input from lawmakers. Franquist said the list, which has to comply with EPA policy, is still “very much in the interim stage,” and is in no way exhaustive. 

MAG hired a contractor to prepare the list, which floats options like decreasing allowed nitrogen oxide emissions and implementing idling reduction technologies in heavy duty vehicles like trucks and school busses, incentives to buy partial-zero and zero emission light-duty vehicles, and replacing gas-fired heaters, boilers and cooking appliances with electric appliances. 

State Senator Jake Hoffman, a Republican from Queen Creek, called the latter suggestions “draconian,” and chided MAG officials for suggesting solutions that he considers to be too “invasive.”

Franquist reiterated that the list is simply to be used as a conversation starter to explore all the possible options. Because of that, and because the list includes such a wide range of solutions, MAG didn’t produce an estimated cost of all the actions, seeing as it only anticipates a few of the options to be selected based on viability, and can’t run models on those options until lawmakers and agencies choose which ones they like.

But Republicans pushed back, arguing that they can’t know what measures are viable until they understand the potential cost. Franquist countered that stakeholders and policymakers would have a better understanding of cost benefit than MAG, so it should be left up to them.

“We’re all going out to dinner,” State Representative Stacey Travers analogized. “Some people want Chinese and other people want French and other people want Italian. We’re all complaining how much it’s gonna cost, when we don’t even know if somebody’s gonna order just the lo mein and an egg roll or the filet mignon. We’re arguing about where we’re gonna go to dinner right now. (The cost analysis) is gonna be when we actually get to the restaurant and start ordering things “

The Democrat from Phoenix said every entity within the region will have different needs, so the wide range of options needs to remain open.

“You don’t go before you know the cost,” Hoffman replied. 

Whatever the costs of reductions may be, the costs of nonattainment continue to pile up.

Audra Thomas, MAG’s transportation planning program manager, said the local economy loses up to $100 million per year in moderate nonattainment, and that cost will double each time the region is recategorized. 

The ad hoc committee on air quality and energy has until Dec. 21 to submit a report of its findings to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House. 

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