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December 14, 2011
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Northeastern Illinois Air Quality Attainment Status Change Could Result in Lost Federal Funds and Weakened Environmental Standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of designating areas that do not meet the eight-hour ozone standard that was established in 2008. A preliminary designation by U.S. EPA has tentatively given the region of northeastern Illinois the status of "in attainment" based on 2008 to 2010 data. In so doing, U.S. EPA has thus far disregarded the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's certified 2011 data, which shows that our region in fact does not meet the U.S. EPA standards. This CMAP Policy Update describes these somewhat convoluted circumstances -- along with their very real implications for our region's air quality and transportation system -- and urges concerned readers to make their views known to the U.S. EPA and members of Congress during the public comment period before the agency takes final action.

Having been in violation of the standard since its inception in 1997, the Chicago region has long been designated as in "non-attainment." As such, the region has continued to receive Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) funds currently in the amount of approximately $80 million to $90 million per year. An updated ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) promulgated in 2008 has been controversial and generated several lawsuits. A scientific advisory panel, charged with reviewing health impact studies and recommending the level of the standard to U.S. EPA, later suggested a more stringent level of between 60 and 70 ppb. Implementation of the standard has therefore been delayed until now.

Because the Clean Air Act requires review -- and, if appropriate, revision -- of air quality standards every five years, the standard is set to be updated in 2013. U.S. EPA uses three continuous years of air quality monitoring data to make the determination as to whether an area is in attainment or non-attainment. As of now, those years will be 2008, 2009, and 2010, which show northeastern Illinois to be in attainment of the 2008 standard. Normally, this would also put the region into a maintenance classification for the 1997 standard, which would mean the region would still qualify for CMAQ funding at a slightly reduced level. But because U.S. EPA intends to revoke the 1997 standard, northeastern Illinois would be considered in attainment of the only remaining standard (2008) and therefore would not qualify for any CMAQ funding.

A significant loss of federal transportation dollars is not the only harmful result if U.S. EPA's final determination is that our region is "in attainment" based on data that are already outdated, or will be outdated on January 1, 2012. Such a determination would also open the door to undoing the very controls that have helped improve our region's air quality, because the finding of attainment would prompt some to urge the withdrawal of many IEPA regulations. IEPA's controls are in fact essential to improving the air quality that determines the health of residents, notably children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illness. If up-to-date 2011 data were considered by the U.S. EPA, it would be clear that these regulations are still needed because our region is not actually in attainment.

Complicating the issue is the fact that our region experienced numerous exceedances of the 2008 air quality standard in 2011. If that year's data is included in making the determination, then the region would not be in attainment of the 2008 standard and would continue to receive CMAQ funding. The IEPA has already certified the 2011 monitoring data and forwarded it to U.S. EPA, requesting that it be considered when making their initial designation. However, after replying to IEPA in a December 9 letter, U.S. EPA has now announced its preliminary designations that assert northeastern Illinois to be in attainment based on the 2008 standard. The upcoming public comment period presents a chance to correct this error.

Additional factors are affecting this situation. Northeastern Illinois is grouped with northwest Indiana in the same non-attainment region. Current U.S. EPA policy is for the agency to use the same years of air quality monitoring data for all states in an air quality region when making a designation. Therefore, Indiana would also have to certify and submit 2011 monitoring data to U.S. EPA and ask that it be considered in its attainment designation. Unfortunately, Indiana is not required to submit its 2011 data until April 30, 2012, which is after U.S. EPA intends to finalize its designations. The business community in Indiana may well prefer that it be designated in attainment of the 2008 standard for the very reason that relaxed regulatory controls would likely ensue.

Another factor is that U.S. EPA policy has been to not review designations made under one standard until the standard has been updated. The next update is scheduled for 2013 which means that northeast Illinois could remain without CMAQ funding until possibly 2015.

While it could seem appealing to proclaim that air quality standards have been attained, there are compelling reasons not to do so at this time. First of all, with exceedances in 2011 and an update of the standard scheduled for 2013, it is inevitable that the region will revert to a non-attainment status. There is little to be gained by declaring attainment for a relatively short period of time. Regulatory measures that have been put in place facilitating the region to attain the standard are not going to be repealed. Certainly so, since a non-attainment status is on the horizon. Secondly, there is the loss of significant federal funding for an important piece of the struggle to clean the air and reduce congestion. Losing over $80 million per year in CMAQ funding would have a significant impact on the transportation system of northeastern Illinois.

As of now, our region is on the path toward being ruled as in attainment of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone, which will result in a total loss of CMAQ funding. To reverse the preliminary ruling would require that U.S. EPA alter its policy regarding consistency in selecting years to monitor data from all states within an air quality region and in changing a designation before a scheduled standard update.

You are encouraged to correspond with U.S. EPA, urging them to reconsider and include the 2011 data which IEPA certified and submitted to them. CMAP sent a letter to Governor Quinn encouraging him to have IEPA submit the certified 2011 data to U.S. EPA, which IEPA subsequently did. The justifications within that letter and this Policy Update should be useful in additional correspondence that readers might send to U.S. EPA and members of Congress. Please contact Don Kopec of CMAP if you have any questions.


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