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Soot levels dropping, but tighter federal limits may trigger new problems for Northeast Ohio

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

CLEVELAND: Take a deep breath, Northeast Ohioans: Soot levels are dropping and the air we breathe is cleaner.

As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to redesignate all or part of seven counties as coming into compliance with two federal limits on fine particulate, or soot.

The proposed change would affect Summit, Portage, Medina, Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain counties and one township in Ashtabula County.

The clean-air reprieve might be temporary, however. When 2013 data is compiled, Cuyahoga County is expected to fail to meet limits that were tightened earlier this year. Even though the other counties are expected to be in compliance, Cuyahoga’s failure would affect the entire region, which is treated as a single entity. Every county must meet the standards or all face federal mandates.

The good news-bad news scenario surfaced Wednesday at an air committee meeting at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.

Final federal approval on the redesignation is pending. The Ohio EPA has endorsed the change.

“That’s good news,” said Sam Rubens, administrator of the Akron Regional Air Quality Management District. “It means the air is getting cleaner and healthier.”

Redesignation would affect local businesses that emit tiny particulates. The change would make it easier for such businesses to expand operations, Rubens said.

Northeast Ohio meets the annual and 24-hour fine particulate standards in the federal Clean Air Act, based on data from 2010-2012.

Authorities said reduced emissions from coal-burning power plants, new controls on diesel-powered vehicles and enforcement actions have lowered soot levels.

The federal standard regulates tiny soot particles that are 1/30th the diameter of human hair and can lodge deep in human lungs. Such soot is a major health threat; it is associated with heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks and missed school and work.

The new annual limit that all six counties must meet going forward is an average of 12 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air. Cuyahoga County in 2013 stands at 13.1, Summit at 12, and Medina and Portage are both 10.3.

There is a separate federal standard for larger particulates, and Northeast Ohio complies, officials said.

Northeast Ohio has experienced a good ozone summer, said clean-air planner Vijay Nemalapuri.

Ozone alerts have been issued only four days this summer: July 16-18 and on Tuesday.

Cooler temperatures and rainy weather have kept ozone levels from reaching troublesome levels in the eight counties: Summit, Portage, Medina, Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, Geauga and Ashtabula.

There were 26 ozone alerts in 2012.

In other news, Lake County will be designated for failing to meet federal limits on sulfur dioxide, effective Oct. 4.

The major pollution source is Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.’s Eastlake Power Plant, which annually releases about 51,000 tons of the pollutant. Three of five boilers are operating.

A plan to reduce the sulfur dioxide must be submitted by January 2015, and the county must comply by August 2018, or it risks losing federal highway dollars and restrictions on industry.

The one-hour average for sulfur dioxide from 2010-2012 in Lake County was 157 parts per billion. The federal limit is 75 parts per billion.

Cuyahoga County recorded a 73 parts per billion in 2009-2011 and a 79 in 2010-2012. It is unclear whether the county might be redesignated as in violation.

Summit County is safe. Its sulfur dioxide level measured 42 parts per billion.

Lake County’s designation will not affect the other counties.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or


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