WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency reclassified the Washington region’s air pollution problem as “severe” Friday, starting a countdown for area governments to submit plans to improve air quality.
The reclassification, from serious to severe, was required after environmental groups sued the EPA, which had not cited the local governments for their failure to meet standards set in the Clean Air Act.
The new classification covers Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Washington, D.C., and five Northern Virginia counties. They have until March 1, 2004, to win EPA approval of plans to comply with the Clean Air Act, or their federal transportation funds could be withheld.
The plans must show that the area will reduce carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, lead, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide emissions by 18 percent by November 2005.
Maryland could achieve those goals by requiring cleaner house paints and hair sprays that are friendlier to the air, among other possible strategies, said Tad Aburns, the manager of air quality programs for the state’s Department of the Environment.
Under the new classification, businesses that emit more than 25 tons of pollution a year will be required to meet emission-control and permitting requirements. Currently, these standards apply only to plants that produce more than 50 tons a year.
Aburns said it is difficult for the region to improve air quality on its own, since the biggest pollution problem is not local but blows in from power plants and industries as far away as Ohio.
This “transport pollution” was the reason area governments had asked for the EPA to extend the deadline for the region to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act. But that extension was successfully challenged in court by environmental groups.
“This decision was one they (the EPA) did not have any choice in,” said David Baron, an Earthjustice attorney.
Baron challenged Aburns’ suggestion that transport pollution is largely to blame for the area’s problems.
“You can’t clean up the air here by just pointing fingers at other states,” he said. “More than 75 percent of our pollution here is locally generated.”
Baron said last year was the worst ever for ozone pollution, citing a record number of high ozone-level summer days when children and senior citizens were warned to stay indoors.
But Christopher Cripps, an environmental engineer for EPA, disagrees.
“The air quality hasn’t gotten worse,” Cripps said. It is better than it was during the 1980s and 1990s, he said.
Both Baron and Cripps referred to studies done by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to support their positions. The council is working with the states and local governments and hopes to have plans ready by July, said Joan Rohlfs, the council’s air-quality planning chief.
Cripps said he believes governments will complete the requisite improvement plans before the deadline.
“We’re quite confident they can do that,” said Cripps.
Houston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and most of New Jersey were already classified as being in severe non-compliance with the Clean Air Act before Friday’s action.