Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties likely will be required to take expensive steps to reduce smog and meet new air pollution standards set this week by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Reducing the smog that tends to plague the Tampa Bay area during warm weather probably will require gas stations to sell cleaner fuel that costs more, Hillsborough County officials said Thursday.
It also will likely require imposing tougher restrictions on the power plants and incinerators where smokestacks still spew nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog, they said.
On the bright side, the new limits will reduce the number of Tampa Bay area residents suffering from respiratory ailments, particularly children and the elderly, said Jerry Campbell of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission.
State environmental officials were noncommittal about their next step, saying only that they would review the new federal standards and decide what to do.
Hillsborough EPC director Rick Garrity predicted the most likely move would be to require "that all the gasoline coming into this area would have to be reformulated to burn cleaner."
Reformulated gas, currently used in 17 states and the District of Columbia, costs about 5 to 6 cents more per gallon than conventional gas, the EPA says.
As for the power plants and incinerators, work under way at Progress Energy will reduce the company's emissions, said spokesman Scott Sutton. The St. Petersburg utility is converting its Weedon Island power plant in Pinellas County from oil to cleaner-burning natural gas.
TECO's Apollo Beach plant will clean up its coal-fired emissions by 2011, according to Campbell of the Hillsborough EPC.
Repeatedly flunking pollution standards can carry a stiff penalty. When Atlanta flunked in 1997, federal officials froze money for new highway construction in the region. Road building stalled, producing nightmarish traffic jams, hurting economic growth and damaging property values.
Two chemicals combine to produce ozone, the main ingredient of smog, on sunny days: hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide. Both puff out of the tail pipes of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as industrial smokestacks.
Studies show that more people head to hospitals with respiratory problems when ozone increases, said Dr. Thomas Truncale, a pulmonologist who teaches at the University of South Florida. He advises his patients to stay indoors on those days.
Until this week, the federal limit for average concentrations of ozone at ground level over an eight-hour period was 84 parts per billion (ppb). Hillsborough barely scraped by, thanks to Tampa Electric's switch from coal to natural gas at its Tampa plant, Campbell said.
The American Lung Association sued the federal government to force it to tighten the limit on ozone. Last year, a science advisory panel unanimously recommended setting the limit no higher than 70 ppb, and urged EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to consider a limit as low as 60 ppb.
But electric utilities, oil companies and other businesses lobbied the agency to keep the standard at 84 ppb, arguing that tighter regulations would cost them too much.
The economic argument should not count when the scientists agree on what is best for human health, said William L. Chameides, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed air quality management in the United States in 2001.
"Where do you draw the line on saving lives?" he asked, contending that setting the limit higher than the scientists' recommendation would mean "more sick days, school absences and deaths."
Johnson announced late Wednesday that the new limit would be 75 ppb. He also proposed revamping the Clean Air Act so EPA administrators could consider cost when revising pollution standards.
"We're really concerned that they're not doing more to protect public health," said Brenda Olsen, spokeswoman for the state chapter of the American Lung Association.
Hillsborough and Pasco are among 10 Florida counties that do not meet the new EPA smog standard, according to DEP figures. Manatee and Sarasota also flunk. From 2004 to 2007, Hillsborough averaged 81 ppb, while Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota's readings were all 76 ppb, according to the DEP.
While Pinellas' reading of 72 ppb meets the new smog standard, air pollution does not stop at the county line. So any pollution control measures required in the four surrounding counties will probably be required in Pinellas as well, Campbell said.
The highest ozone reading in Florida, 82 ppb, was in Escambia County in the Panhandle, according to the DEP. The other counties DEP identified as not in compliance are Santa Rosa, Bay, Duval, Lake and Orange.
The EPA gives counties years to meet the needed reductions. The areas suffering from the worst air pollution may get up to a decade to comply before federal funds would be withheld.
Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and San Jose Mercury News was used in this report.