BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reversing a 2013 finding that Montana’s largest city was out of compliance with air pollution standards, saying that the closure of a coal-burning power plant has eased the problem.
The EPA said the closure has reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide to levels low enough to protect public health as required under the Clean Air Act.
It’s the first time the EPA has re-designated a polluted area as making sufficient air quality improvements to meet the federal standards since 29 communities across the U.S. were ruled out of compliance in 2013, according to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
High levels can impair breathing and cause other health problems. Children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems are most susceptible.
The Corette power plant shut down in March 2015. The move came in part because of the high cost of installing equipment that would have been needed to meet tightening federal standards for pollutants including mercury and sulfur dioxide.
Corette emitted thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide annually. That was enough to push the state over the edge after the EPA tightened sulfur dioxide pollution standards in 2010, to track the amount of pollution emitted on an hourly basis.
Bullock said in a statement Tuesday that the EPA’s move would ease restrictions on industries in Billings “hampered” by the EPA’s 2013 designation and allow the city’s economy to continue growing.
Even before Corette was closed by former owner PPL Montana, Montana officials had argued that the EPA had based its earlier decision on flawed data.
Most sulfur dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels.
Other major sources in and around Billings include an ExxonMobil oil refinery, a CHS refinery in Laurel, the Yellowstone Energy Limited Partnership (YELP) power plant and the Montana Sulphur and Chemical Company.
If the EPA designation had remained in place, other industrial plants could have been forced to add pollution controls. The Clean Air Act also allows the government to sanction non-compliant states by withholding federal highway funds.
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