EPA’ s New Ozone Rule: Part 15

A major innovation of EPA’s 2010 revision of the ozone standard was the introduction of what is called a secondary standard that is different from the primary standard. The secondary standard has existed before, but it was always set identical to the primary standard. To summarize the two standards:

  • The primary standard is intended to protect the public health. It is currently based on the fourth-highest 8-hour average ozone concentration reading in a year.
  • The secondary standard is meant to protect property, economic interests, and other concerns. It is based on a cumulative ozone concentration over time. Ozone readings are taken hourly between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., adjusted by what is called the W126 rule, and then summed during a three-month period. Units are in ppm-hours. See what I wrote in this blog about the secondary standard in the post “EPA’s New Ozone Rule: Part 6.” To view, click here.

Now if one standard was consistently stricter than the other, the EPA could simply adopt the stricter standard. That it felt necessary to formulate two standards can only mean that in some places one standard will be harder to meet, and in other places the other standard will be the stricter. The EPA wants to meet both standards everywhere, a condition we Orthodox Jews call being machmir for both shitos.

What I don’t understand yet is why the primary standard, which is meant to safeguard public health, is based on a highest one-time average, whereas the secondary standard, meant to protect property, is based on a cumulative measure. A cumulative standard makes sense, because research shows that the extent of damage to plants caused by ozone depends on cumulative exposure. But perhaps damage to human health also depends on cumulative exposure, just as the damage caused by radiation to human health depends on cumulative exposure. Why not make the primary standard cumulative as well? Be that as it may, currently the primary standard remains based on a highest one-time average, while the secondary standard remains identical to the primary standard.

What I want to do in this post is quote EPA in its own words why it felt a new secondary standard was necessary, discussed in the document National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone, Final Preamble, 2011.

From the outset, the EPA is clear that the secondary standard was formulated because of ozone’s effects on plants (p. 196):

…The 2006 Criteria Document concluded that O3 exposure indices that cumulate differentially weighted hourly concentrations are the best candidates for relating exposure to plant growth responses…

It is interesting that the EPA recognized the value of a secondary standard long before 2010 (p. 197):

At the conclusion of the 1997 review, the biological basis for a cumulative, seasonal form was not in dispute. There was general agreement between the EPA staff, CASAC, and the Administrator, based on their review of the air quality criteria, that a cumulative, seasonal form was more biologically relevant than the previous 1-hour and new 8-hour average forms (61 FR 65716).

The EPA also explained why, rather than summing up straight ozone concentrations, it chose to sum up modified values, referred to as the W126 form. Using W126 values gives more weight to higher concentrations and much less weight to lower concentrations that would exist either naturally without human activity, or from foreign sources beyond the control of the U.S. government (p. 198):

Regarding the first consideration, the 2007 Staff Paper noted that the W126 form, by its incorporation of a continuous sigmoidal weighting scheme, does not create an artificially imposed concentration threshold, yet also gives proportionally more weight to the higher and typically more biologically potent concentrations, as supported by the scientific evidence. Second, the index value is not significantly influenced by O3 concentrations within the range of estimated PRB [policy-relevant background, the level of ozone not caused by human activity in the U.S. — MHK], as the weights assigned to concentrations in this range are very small.

Nevertheless, the EPA retained a secondary standard identical to the primary standard until 2010. Initially, the EPA felt that if the primary standard was made more strict, it would be sufficient for the secondary standard were made identical to it. A separate secondary standard that was cumulative would provide no additional protection unless it was made very strict, which can’t be justified because our knowledge of the effects of low-level ozone on vegetation is so uncertain (the paragraph sign [¶] indicates a paragraph break that I inserted. P. 209):

In considering the appropriateness of establishing a new standard defined in terms of a cumulative, seasonal form, or revising the 1997 secondary standard by making it identical to the revised primary standard, … EPA first considered the 2007 Staff Paper analysis of the projected degree of overlap between counties with air quality expected to meet the revised 8-hour primary standard, set at a level of 0.075 ppm, and alternative levels of a W126 standard based on currently monitored air quality data. This analysis showed significant overlap between the revised 8-hour primary standard and selected levels of the W126 standard form being considered, with the degree of overlap between these alternative standards depending greatly on the W126 level selected and the distribution of hourly O3 concentrations within the annual and/or 3-year average period. On this basis, as an initial matter, EPA concluded that a secondary standard set identical to the proposed primary standard would provide a significant degree of additional protection for vegetation as compared to that provided by the then-current 0.084 ppm secondary standard.

¶ In further considering the significant uncertainties that remain in the available body of evidence of O3-related vegetation effects and in the exposure and risk analyses conducted for the 2008 rulemaking, and the difficulty in determining at what point various types of vegetation effects become adverse for sensitive vegetation and ecosystems, EPA focused its consideration on a level for an alternative W126 standard at the upper end of the proposed range (i.e., 21 ppm-hours). The 2007 Staff Paper analysis showed that at that W126 standard level, there would be essentially no counties with air quality that would be expected both to exceed such an alternative W126 standard and to meet the revised 8-hour primary standard – that is, based on this analysis of currently monitored counties, a W126 standard would be unlikely to provide additional protection in any monitored areas beyond that likely to be provided by the revised primary standard.

The EPA states again that with the lack of extensive monitoring in rural areas, it is unsure how much additional protection a separate secondary standard would provide. At this point, it decided to err on the side of less regulation. Note that the term “8 hour standard” refers to the primary standard, which averages readings over eight-hour periods (p. 210):

The EPA also recognized that the general lack of rural monitoring data made uncertain the degree to which the revised 8-hour standard or an alternative W126 standard would be protective in those areas, and that there would be the potential for not providing the appropriate degree of protection for vegetation in areas with air quality distributions that result in a high cumulative, seasonal exposure but do not result in high 8-hour average exposures. While this potential for under-protection using an 8- hour standard was clear, the number and size of areas at issue and the degree of risk was hard to determine. However, EPA concluded at that time that an 8-hour standard would also tend to avoid the potential for providing more protection than is necessary, a risk that EPA concluded would arise from moving to a new form for the secondary standard despite significant uncertainty in determining the degree of risk for any exposure level and the appropriate level of protection, as well as uncertainty in predicting exposure and risk patterns.

…EPA concluded at that time that establishing a new secondary standard with a cumulative, seasonal form would result in uncertain benefits beyond those afforded by the revised primary standard and therefore may be more than necessary to provide the requisite degree of protection.

Eventually, though, the EPA changed its mind. Why will be discussed in the next post.

One response to “EPA’ s New Ozone Rule: Part 15

  1. Pingback: EPA’s New Ozone Rule: Part 24 | Michael Klein's Environmental Essays

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