LITTLE ROCK — The director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality says a new state law will put the state’s air quality regulations at odds with federal law and the consequences could be painful to state economic development.
Business and industry representatives disagree, arguing there is already an over-reliance on the use of the air modeling test and the process has hamstrung industries in recent years when they attempt to expand, increase production or change equipment.
"Even (the federal Environmental Protection Agency) has recognized that an over-reliance upon modeling is not the right approach," said Randy Thurman, executive director of the Arkansas Environmental Federation, an association of about 300 manufacturers, utilities, local governments, solid waste districts, universities and service providers.
The Legislature this year passed, and the governor signed into law, Act 1302, which prohibits ADEQ from conducting its own computerized modeling to determine the air quality impact of a new factory or plant. Under the amendment to the state’s air-pollution regulations, ADEQ must rely solely on air pollution monitoring stations across the state. There are 15 such stations in Arkansas.
ADEQ Director Teresa Marks, who spoke against the proposal during the legislative session, said last week the department is moving forward with implementation of the law, through it could have negative consequences on the state’s desire to develop and expand industry.
"It’s the law, so we’re going to enforce it to the best of our ability and … this may put us in between our law and EPA," Marks said, adding that the federal agency could deny air permits and "the ultimate sanction would mean that they would remove our delegated program, which means they say, ‘We’re taking over (because) you guys aren’t doing it right.’
"That means you have an industry that is either trying to expand or trying to operate and they can’t get their permit approved ,and that’s a big concern of ours," she said.
The permits can be for anything, from a furniture factory to a steel mill, she said.
Lawmakers in committee meetings defended the measures, saying they are not anti-environment but designed to reduce overburdening regulations on municipalities and businesses in the state.
Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, sponsor of the legislation, said he was approached by business and industry officials about the the legislation.
"One of the issues that they brought up is that Arkansas is the only state in the southeast region that measures air quality by the method in which we measure it at this present time," Caldwell said. "This bill would bring us more in line with the other states in the southeastern part of the United States and would give us a more competitive basis in trying to attract and retain industry."
The bill was crafted by the Energy and Environmental Alliance of Arkansas and at least one member of the Arkansas Environmental Federation, helped draft the legislation, Thurman said.
"Act 1302 was proposed by the permitted community because of ADEQ’s growing reliance upon air emissions modeling in the face of increasingly stringent EPA ambient air standards," Thurman said.
Sally Graham, spokeswoman for Entergy Arkansas, said last week that the utility supports Act 1302.
"The act brings Arkansas into alignment with the way air permits are processed in our region," Graham said.
Marks said other environmental agencies in other states in the region might not routinely conduct the type of air quality modeling in dispute, but they are not prohibited by law to do so if needed.
"So if they have one that comes in that they are concerned about they always have the option of doing that modeling and the way it was in Arkansas," she said, adding that modeling is done on about 25 percent of the nearly 200 permit applications received annually by ADEQ.
A screening model, however, is done all applications.
"We would do a screening model and … based upon the national ambient air quality standards determine whether or not we feel like it was bumping up close enough," she said. "Whether those emissions might contribute enough to add significant level emissions in that area."
"We feel like that people throughout the state deserve clean air, so we’re trying to make sure that those quality standards are maintained throughout the state and definitely don’t want to make any of the areas go into non-attainment," she said.
Marks also said the EPA has expressed concerns about Act 1302 and whether it might be counter to federal air quality law.
Thomas Diggs, associate director for air in EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, wrote in a June 5 letter to Mike Ross, chief of ADEQ’s air division, that Act 1302 "will affect ADEQ’s current air permit program and we would like to remind the ADEQ and its legal obligations under the Clean Air Act and the Arkansas State Implementation Plan to protect human health and the environment."
Diggs wrote that EPA would review it’s authority under the Clean Air Act "and actions that may be necessary if the implementation of Act 1302 could result in a violation of applicable portions of the control strategy or interfere with attainment or maintenance of the" National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
Marks said her department’s job is to find a way to award air quality permits "in accordance with (our) state implementation plan and accordance with federal law."
She said she worried that permits approved by ADEQ might not be approved by the EPA and if that happens, the federal agency could take over the state’s entire air permit process.
EPA also could withhold grant money to the state, she said.
Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club Arkansas chapter, oppose Act 1302.
On Friday, more than 50 representatives of business and industry met with ADEQ officials at the department’s headquarters to discuss the permitting process under Act 1302. Those attending were provided with several sheets of information about how the new procedure for air permitting will work.
ADEQ Deputy Director Karen Bassett said the department is moving quickly to implement the new law because it took effect April 15, the day it was signed by the governor. She said it affects all future permit requests, as well as "those already in the pipeline."
"Our goal in putting the documents together was to clarify as much as we could to the applicants about how processes were going to change so we could try and make things as soon as possible so you didn’t submit something and get it kicked back or have a whole bunch of questions that you weren’t anticipating," she said.