FARMINGTON — San Juan County is pushing the limits for ozone pollution, prompting the New Mexico Environment Department to take action.
Ozone pollution standards are set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. When a part of the state reaches 95 percent of that standard, state law requires NMED to develop a plan to stop the area from reaching non-attainment status.
A monitor located near Navajo Lake has registered ozone levels of 70 parts per billion — which is the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
San Juan County is one of seven New Mexico counties that exceed 95 percent of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone. The other counties are Eddy, Lea, Doña Ana, Rio Arriba, Sandoval and Valencia.
The City of Albuquerque has been struggling with ozone levels this summer, however Bernalillo County has its own air quality division and is not regulated by NMED’s air quality bureau.
Both Eddy and Doña Ana counties have exceeded the federal ozone standards.
Ozone standards have changed
NMED Environmental Analyst Robert Spillers said one reason the counties are now having ozone readings close to or exceeding standards is because the standards were changed.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the maximum threshold from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion.
That meant counties that previously were not exceeding 95 percent of the standard are now exceeding that standard.
None of the New Mexico counties exceed the previous 75 parts per billion standard.
Spillers said this is the first time he is aware NMED has had to draft ozone attainment plans.
What is ozone and why are people concerned?
Ozone in the stratosphere protects people from dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation, but when ozone forms close to the ground it can cause health problems including respiratory illness.
When ozone forms near the ground, it is often called smog. It is created when volatile organic compounds interact with nitrous oxides in the presence of sunlight.
Nitrous oxides come from burning coal, oil, natural gas or other fuels. Industrial sources and vehicles also emit nitrous oxides.
Meanwhile, volatile organic compounds can be released during oil and gas production and by chemical plants, refineries, factories and non-industrial sources. There are more than 100 volatile organic compounds. Some are even released by evaporation of solvents used in cleaners, detergents and paints.
The nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds do not have to be released locally to lead to high ozone levels in the area. For example, Sunland Park in Doña Ana County has high ozone levels but NMED believes the pollution comes from northern Mexico as well as Texas.
NMED focuses on preventing counties from exceeding ozone standards
Right now any measures taken to lower ozone levels will be voluntary, but if San Juan County goes into non-attainment status the measures will become mandatory.
Areas that are in non-attainment and do not meet attainment standards by a set date can face sanctions, including withholding grant funding or highway funds.
NMED officials say they are unaware of any part of the state that has ever faced sanctions for exceeding ozone standards.
The reason NMED is developing the plan is to prevent San Juan County from reaching non-attainment status.
Public offers input during Farmington meeting
Some of the people who attended the meeting on Sept. 9 expressed concerns that policies to reduce ozone could harm the oil and gas industry and lead to job losses.
NMED Air Quality Bureau Chief Elizabeth Kuehn said the economic impacts will be considered while developing a plan to lower ozone levels and prevent the county from reaching non-attainment.
NMED Air Quality Bureau Planning Section Chief Kerwin Singleton said emission reductions will not mean shutting down an industry.
While some members of the audience expressed concern about impacts to the core San Juan County industries, others discussed asthma and respiratory illness.
Aztec Mayor Victor Snover said breathing problems are not uncommon in San Juan County.
"If we're not interested in improving the air for our own children and our grandchildren, what are we doing here and why are we even bothering?" he asked. "That should be the goal."
Future meetings planned for other parts of the state
San Juan County is not the only place that NMED is hosting meetings about ozone.
NMED will meet with the public in Santa Fe on Sept. 12. There will be a meeting in Las Cruces on Sept. 25 and another in Carlsbad on Sept. 26.
NMED expects to have draft ozone attainment initiative plans available for public comment in 2020. The state Environmental Review Board will ultimately approve the plans.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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