KNAU and Arizona News
12:28 pm
Thu December 29, 2005

State to crack down on air pollution

Phoenix – There are federal laws dealing with hazardous pollutants. But these cover only businesses which emit at least 10 tons a year of any one chemical. Smaller polluters are subject only to state air quality guidelines -- guidelines with no force of law. That 1992 law was designed to deal with at least part of the gap, giving DEQ the power to enact rules to regulate companies whose toxic emissions total just one ton a year. But business groups subsequently convinced members of the Governor's Regulatory Review Council at that time to veto that proposed rule. And DEQ just let the subject drop. That lack of action was discovered by Steve Owens when he became DEQ director in 2003.

(There have been many tons of hazardous air pollutants that have been released into the air and have been breathed into the lungs of Arizona citizens over the last 12 years. They should have been regulated and were
not.)

So Owens got his staff to resurrect and recraft the rules. What they propose is a requirement for a company to install new pollution control equipment any time it sets up a new site, or expands or modifies an existing one. It allows businesses to seek an exemption. But they would have to prove to the state that the additional pollutants will not harm public health. They can do this through various ways, ranging from wind patterns to even how close they are to nearby homes. But, just like the 1990s, some business interests are lining up against the plan, hoping to kill -- or at least modify it. Attorney Roger Ferland who represents some of the affected industries said the time-consuming procedures required in the new rules could result in economic havoc.

(If you have to get approval before you can expand an operation or change an operation that involves hazardous air pollutants, and it takes too long, high-tech industry is terrified that it's going to lose markets. Because in an industry like semiconductors and some of these other industries, because they are everchanging, a delay in being able to install the equipment necessary to produce a new product, or change that equipment so they can alter that product, is fatal.)

Ferland said a preferable approach would be to tell each site how much of any given pollutant they can emit. That would allow company officials to make necessary changes as long as they live within that cap. Owens said he finds that unacceptable because it ignores the cumulative effect on neighbors of all the polluters in the same area. But that isn't the only problem the business community has with the proposal. Stanton Curry, a lawyer who works with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, questions the levels of various chemicals that DEQ believes are hazardous to health.

(And we think DEQ reached those conclusions, which we think are unsupported, based on oversimplification or what we would call overly conservative assumptions. You pile worst-case assumption on worst-case assumption and the numbers that those multiple worst-case assumptions generate are not realistic.)

But Owens doesn't see it that way. He said the rules are necessary to protect public health.

(That's really what this is all about, to try to protect citizens of this state, especially vulnerable populations, young children and seniors and others, from exposure to toxic air pollutants.)

Even if the revived DEQ proposal does get enacted, that doesn't mean there was no harm from the delay. Any company that started up or expanded since 1992 and would have had to comply with the first rule can keep polluting at current levels without adding any new equipment. In Phoenix, for Arizona Public Radio this is Howard Fischer.