Clearing the Air on Bucket Brigade’s Latest Attack on SO2

02 04, 2013 by LMOGA

Last week, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) took a closer look at air samples around St. Bernard Parish after monitor sites indicated a brief increase in the level of sulfur dioxide (SO2) registered in the area.

Although DEQ was quick to mention in its release that no refineries in the area were found to be in violation of their permitted emissions limit, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade jumped into the fray immediately with an eye on spinning a very different story to the press, and hastily calling a press conference to push a new “survey” it had conducted of local residents, which the group touted as proof that people had gotten sick, and that the refineries were to blame.

Thankfully, DEQ chose to take a scientific and much more reasoned approach to the issue. Not surprisingly, DEQ’s findings were dramatically different from those put forth by the Bucket Brigade and reported by local media.

In conducting additional air sampling in St. Bernard Parish, DEQ found levels of SO2 above what’s known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 75 parts per billion (ppb). As DEQ officials have stated repeatedly – and, to its credit, the Times-Picayune has itself pointed out – a number of things can contribute to short-term jumps in SO2; not just refineries and chemical facilities, but ship activity, cars on the road, and a whole host of other sources.

Under EPA’s national standards, refiners work hard to ensure that areas proximate to their facilities do not exeed a one-hour daily maximum SO2 concentration of 75 ppb. And while the exact source of the elevated SO2 levels is still under investigation, the DEQ has already confirmed that “no [refining] facilities have been in violation of their permitted [emissions] limits.”

Changes to EPA rules

The other key to understanding the news surrounding the elevated SO2 levels last week is doing a little research on the rule itself – and specifically the fact that it’s entirely new relative to the standard that EPA applied until recently.

As DEQ recently advised, in 2010 the EPA changed the SO2 emissions standard from a maximum over a 24-hour average to a one-hour maximum within a 24-hour window. As state regulators and industries across the country will tell you, that’s a major change. And while DEQ has verified that all areas in the state continue to meet the original 24-hour average, the new standard is proving to be a challenge to both regulate and conform to everywhere it’s being applied.

As a result, even though the rule has been in place since 2010, the EPA has given designated regions – including Louisiana – until June 2013 to assess whether they’ll be able to plausibly meet this new standard. If they aren’t able to do so, the EPA rule provides another 5 years to bring certain areas into compliance.

The bottom line is this: According to DEQ, Louisiana’s air quality is the best it has been in years. As the chart below demonstrates, the New Orleans area has seen SO2 levels far below the national average over the course of about 20 years of monitoring. And, again, the SO2 threshold that was recently reached is a new one that’s still very much in the road-testing phase here in Louisiana.

NO SO2 Air Quality 1990-2010

But what about that survey from the Bucket Brigade?

While the Louisiana Bucket Brigade may have grabbed a couple of quick headlines with its unverifiable survey of residents, the method by which the group gathered its “data” is, shall we say, far from scientific.

As the Times-Picayune reported, activists went door-to-door around only a 20-square-block radius and asked whoever was home if: 1) they smelled something in the air; and 2) whether they sought medical attention as a result. Despite applying the broadest definition of “medical attention” they could, only 7 percent of those polled responded in the affirmative.

Push-polls and manufactured surverys aside, it’s worth noting that DEQ’s Air Monitoring Data indicates that SO2 levels in the New Orleans area today are actually pretty good – coming in lower on the scale, and continuing to drop as refiners and other industrial sectors continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new reduction and abatement technologies. Unfortunately, that’s not a headline you’re likely to see in the papers anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great piece of news for folks in southern Louisiana.