MANATEE — Manatee and Sarasota counties soon could face a big-city problem: excessive smog.
The two-county area is likely to violate new federal ozone standards, triggering an extensive — and expensive — effort to improve the region’s air quality, officials say.
“I think they’re going to lower the standard to a point where we are going to be in violation,” said Mike Maholtz, a planner with the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The U.S Environmental Protection Agency is poised to drop the limit on ground-level ozone, a primary component of smog. It is widely expected that the revised standard, to be released by the end of the year, will fall from 75 parts ozone per billion parts air to somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion.
Regardless of where the new ozone limit lands, it will be difficult for Manatee/Sarasota to comply with it.
The region is barely meeting the current standard, with an average reading of 74 parts per billion in 2007-09, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That’s the fourth-highest level in Florida — behind only Escambia, Hillsborough and Santa Rosa counties — and worse than Miami (69), Orlando (71) and Jacksonville (70).
The DEP estimates 14 Florida counties would not meet a 70 parts per billion standard. At 60 parts per billion, that figure jumps to 38 counties.
Local ozone levels have been slowly dropping in recent years, which Maholtz partly attributes to people driving less because of the Great Recession and higher gas prices. Yet it’s unlikely to fall far and fast enough for Manatee/Sarasota to avoid being designated as a “non-attainment” area under the new standard, he said.
Such a designation would immediately trigger stricter permitting requirements on new or modified pollution sources, according to the EPA. It also will start a three-year deadline for local and state officials to plan and implement ways to bring ozone levels down to acceptable levels.
“One of the first things I expect to see are the vapor-capturing devices on gas pumps,” Maholtz said. “There’s a laundry list of other things that could be done. It’s hard to say what tools we’ll use.”
Those options include expanding mass transit; regulating how long large trucks can idle; encouraging more carpooling; and reinstating automobile emissions testing.
The MPO also would have to consider and mitigate potential air-quality impacts when it prioritizes local road projects, Maholtz said.
The EPA estimated complying with a 60 parts per billion standard could cost the U.S. economy as much as $90 billion annually in 2020. Most of that would be from new emissions controls, higher electricity charges and more-frequent auto inspections.
That would be offset by as much as $100 billion in health savings achieved through reduced medical costs and fewer missed work/school days, the agency said.
But the potentially high cost of compliance has driven Republican and business opposition to tightening the standard. The Manufacturers Alliance claims a 60 parts per billion limit — the lowest being considered — would cost the economy $1 trillion annually from 2020 to 2030 and nix 7.3 million jobs.
The Manatee Chamber of Commerce has been monitoring the issue but has not taken an official position on it, said Neil Spirtas, its vice president of public policy and small business.
But he noted several efforts already are underway that could help further reduce ozone levels. Among them is the ongoing installation of the Advanced Traffic Management System, which uses technology to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion.
The $9.8 million first phase will upgrade 143 signalized intersections and install 38 closed-circuit traffic-monitoring cameras in Bradenton and unincorporated Manatee by the end of this year. The $5.4 million second phase, which includes 88 signalized intersections and another 20 cameras in Palmetto and the county, is expected to be finished in mid-2011.
Duane Marsteller, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.