Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TOP STORY >>Ozone could puncture North Belt plans

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

The completion of the North Belt Freeway could be “dead in the water,” if ozone levels are as high next summer as they were this past summer, according to John Hoffpauer of Metroplan. Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie, while not as dramatic in his assessment, said construction of the North Belt and some other projects could be delayed or further complicated if central Arkansas slips into ozone noncompliance, and a lot of it depends on the weather, he said.

In determining ozone levels for a locality, the Environmental Protection Agency forgives the three summer days with the highest ozone levels each year, but the fourth highest day is averaged with the fourth highest days from the two preceding summers. If that moving three-year average exceeds 85.5 parts per billion, then a city or region is found to be in noncompliance and building new roads and attracting new business becomes greatly complicated or even impossible.

The fourth highest reading last summer was 88 ppb, according to Hoffpauer. Even if the fourth highest next summer is 87, it will still round up to 86 ppb, putting central Ar-kansas in nonattainment. Currently, no route has been selected for the North Belt Freeway through Sherwood and no funding has been earmarked. “If you’re not about to build it, its construction can’t really be delayed,” McKenzie said.

And if money is being spent and the project already is underway, its completion is allowed, said McKenzie. But still, life becomes much more difficult. Ozone levels last summer were low, except one really bad week, McKenzie said. But the fourth highest ozone level day was a high one, and a repeat this year will put the region into nonattainment. Once in nonattainment, it can take a decade or more to get the EPA off your back, according to Hoffpauer. The state Department of Environmental Quality has to develop a state implementation plan and establish an emissions budget, McKenzie said.

“Certain projects, if funded, could move ahead,” he said. Even the need to do a “build-no build” analysis would be difficult. The region would have to show that its transportation plan was in compliance with the state air quality implementation plan.
While Metroplan and the DEQ must monitor volatile organic compounds, such as gasoline fumes or fumes from a pine forest, the big problem is nitrous oxide, which come from combustion. NOX as its known, is a byproduct of cars, trucks, tractors and lawnmowers, with the largest point source in this area coming from Entergy’s White Bluff coal-fired power plant, Hoffpauer said.

Entergy had no replied to inquiries by press time. “It creates a bad business climate,” said Hoffpauer. “It creates difficulty for some businesses to expand or come here because of the regulations. Smokestack industries look elsewhere.” Tailpipe and smokestack NOX pollution need to be reduced, according to Hoffpauer. Everybody needs to pitch in. Entergy is funding an on-line survey to help determine how to reach consumers with the message about cutting ozone-producing chemicals.
Metroplan and its partners spend $50,000 last summer spreading the message that people should car pool, cut grass at night, take the bus, don’t go out to lunch or otherwise help keep down production of nitrous oxide.