Proposed updates to the state’s toxic air pollution rules will make regulations slightly stricter overall to protect young and unborn children from exposure, according to the state Department of Ecology. The changes could make it more difficult for new businesses to get industrial permits, officials said.
The rule sets limits for industry air emissions of about 400 different toxic chemicals. Release for many, but not all, of these chemicals is tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its toxic release inventory, which showed Cowlitz County as Washington third-highest emitter of toxic chemicals in its 2017 report.
Ecology uses data from the EPA, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to determine a “level (of pollutants) in the air that would be generally safe for the population over a specific period of time,” Palcisko said. Those limits become “one of the building blocks we use to issue industrial permits,” said Ecology spokesman Andrew Wineke.
Ecology updates the rule every five to 10 years as new science about chemical toxicity becomes available. The last time it was updated was 2009, Palcisko said.
New modeling systems help scientists “eliminate some of the uncertainties” of previous toxicity estimates, allowing them to “focus in on a (limit) they feel more confidently is protective,” Palcisko said.
The changes tighten regulation for some toxins and ease them on others.
Palcisko pointed to ammonia as one example. (Ammonia is the second most common toxic chemical released in the air by Cowlitz County industry, according to the 2017 EPA toxic release inventory).
The previous concentration level was set at 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air until the EPA reviewed it in 2016. Modern modeling shows ammonia is safe at up to 500 micrograms per cubic meter, he said, making the rule less restrictive for that chemical.
Ammonia is one of about 40 chemicals with looser regulations under the proposed updates, Palcisko said. Also included on the less stringent list is methanol, the number one most commonly released toxic chemical in Cowlitz County, as measured by the EPA toxic release inventory.
The opposite is also true, and the level of 25% of the list, or about 100 chemicals, will become more protective. About 45 new chemicals have been added to the list.
“One of the biggest changes that occurred — and made many of these levels more stringent — was that we tried to account for early life exposure (for) kids in the womb and early parts of childhood,” Palcisko said. “They might be more susceptible to exposure to certain chemicals, so we took that into account ... and the levels considered acceptable are lower than before.”
The new regulations won’t necessarily or immediately reduce the volume of toxic chemicals released locally, Palcisko said. Companies are “grandfathered” in under their the old permits. But when permits come up for renewal, or the companies make major changes to their facilities, they could then be subject to the new controls.
Updating the rule will have the greatest immediate effect on incoming industry seeking permits for the first time and permit renewals, Palcisko said.
“For industries that emit these chemicals as part of their (operations), it might make their permitting process a little bit more difficult,” he said. “It might mean they have to take additional steps to reduce what their emissions might be.”
And for companies in the middle of the permitting process when the rule is approved, the effect will vary, Palcisko said. If no major changes are made to the building from the original proposal, the “rule that is on the books now (before the update) will be the rule they must follow,” he said. However, if the company “tweaks” their application significantly after the new rule becomes effective, the local air authority could decide to hold them accountable to the new regulations, Palcisko said.
“The purpose of this rule is to look at an increase in emissions from a modification to an existing facility or from a brand-new facility … What this regulation is trying to do is minimize the increased risk posed by newer industrial processes in Washington’s state,” Palcisko said.
The idea is to keep toxic emissions low so places with “lots of industrial activity … aren’t piling lots and lots of new emissions on top of each other,” he said.
Ecology released its complete list of the proposed updates last week, launching a public comment period that lasts through July 23. More detail about the proposed updates and how to comment is available on Ecology’s website.