As cars and trucks rumble on I-95 near Connecticut’s shoreline, they spew emissions into the air. On hot summer days, those emissions, along with the emissions from power plants and factories, cook in the sun, which turns them into ozone. Ozone is the chief component in smog.
Southern Connecticut’s ozone is some of the worst in the nation, and, while it’s much better than it was back in the 1980’s, it’s been getting worse.
Anne Gobin is chief of the bureau of air management at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). According to Gobin, Connecticut is getting the emissions from states to its west and south. And since Connecticut isn’t causing the problem, it really can’t fix it.
"We are extremely challenged because we are downwind. In Fairfield, Connecticut you could say 95 percent of the problem we are experiencing is due to transported air pollution. And it's location, location, location. We are in exactly the location where the air creates high levels of ozone," Gobin said.
Jeff Underhill is the air resources chief scientist in New Hampshire and he’s done some weather models.
"The current problem right now is that the weather patterns have shifted a little bit. Connecticut is now basically taking the brunt of the direct impacts of pollution sources for the time being. A couple of years ago it was Maryland where they were taking the biggest hit." he said.
So how bad is bad? In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set ozone maximums at 84 parts per billion. In 2008, EPA lowered it to 75 ppb, and the new proposal calls for getting it down to between 65 and 70 ppb.
Southern Connecticut is in a region that includes Long Island, New York City and part of northern New Jersey. The area had attained the 1997 standard but not the 2008, according to Dave Conroy. He’s the Air Program Manager in the EPA’s Boston office.
"In 2012, EPA designated all of Connecticut non-attainment for the 75 ppb standard and established an attainment date by the end of 2015, " Conroy said.
Since then, the region slipped back above the 1997 standard and the EPA told all 3 states to come up with a plan to fix that, too.
And that’s when things got a little tense. In Connecticut, DEEP sent off a letter to the EPA telling it to start enforcing other rules on the books that would cut down on transported emissions.
"We can’t attain it, even if we shut off all the emissions in Connecticut, if the transport piece of the puzzle isn’t addressed," Anne Gobin of DEEP said.
For Gobin it's and issue of fairness for the state.
"Continuing to require Connecticut to apply more and more regulations and not require that across the board when other states are contributing to our problem and the root cause of our problem is totally unfair to the the citizens of Connecticut," she said.
EPA’s Conroy calls the situation challenging, not adversarial.
"It’s not like we’re picking on Connecticut, even though it does have the highest levels in the non-attainment area at this point in time," he said.
Conroy said the EPA will work with the region to target emission reductions in things like power plants.
Sierra Club staff attorney Joshua Berman has one power plant in mind.
"One of the first places I would look is at Bridgeport Harbor station, which is one of the last remaining moderate size coal plants in the east that lacks any add-on emission control," he said.
Bridgeport is more of a backup power plant that only operates when electricity demand is high- like the hottest summer days, when air quality is already bad. That makes it the worst time for a coal plant to run.
But Gobin said most emissions that produce ozone in Connecticut come from cars, trucks and other mobile sources, not power plants. And there's a lot of data to back her up.
"I’m not saying we don’t need to focus on the power plants. We do, but that can’t be our whole focus. We have to look at this much more holistically," she said.
Even so, DEEP is revising some of its emissions regulations and worrying about next summer. With gasoline prices so low, that could mean more people taking road trips. And even more ozone.