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Air Quality

Natural Events Policy

May 30, 1996

 

Purpose
Background
Desciption of Policy
Definition of PM10 Natural Events
Response to NAAQS Violation
Form and Timing of Response
Documentation of Natural Events
Current PM10 Nonattainment Areas
Failure to Submit a Natural Events Action Plan
Appendix - Interpretation of the Clean Air Act (ACT) as amened in 1990


MEMORANDUM

SUBJECT:
Areas Affected by PM-10 Natural Events

FROM:
Mary D. Nichols, Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation (6101)

TO:
Director, Air, Pesticides and Toxics Management, Division, Regions I and IV
Director, Air and Waste Management Division, Region II
Director, Air, Radiation and Toxics Division, Region III
Director, Air and Radiation Division, Region V
Director, Air, Pesticides and Toxics Division, Region VI
Director, Air and Toxics Division, Region VII
Director, Air and Toxics Division, Region VIII
Director, Air and Toxics Division, Region IV
Director, Air and Toxics Division, Region X

Purpose

This memorandum sets forth the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) policy for protecting public health in areas where the PM-10 (particulate matter having a nominal aerodynamic diameter less than or equal to 10 microns) national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) are violated due to natural events. This policy will be followed in implementing the PM-10 NAAQS until it is superseded. The need for revisions to this policy will be considered by EPA, State agencies and the Federal Advisory Committee Act's Particulate Matter/Ozone/Regional Haze Subcommittee if the NAAQS for particulate matter are revised.

Three categories of natural events have been identified as affecting the PM-10 NAAQS: (1) volcanic and seismic activity, (2) wildland fires, and (3) high wind events. These PM-10 natural events are defined further below. If other significant categories of natural events are identified, they may be added to this policy in the future.

Background

Prior to the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (Act), the Guideline on the Identification and Use of Air Quality Data Affected by Exceptional Events (exceptional events guideline) and Appendix K to 40 CFR, part 50, were issued by EPA to address, in part, the situation where natural sources strongly influence an area's PM-10 air quality. To avoid imposing potentially unreasonable State implementation plan (SIP) requirements on such areas, EPA provided for the exclusion of certain natural source data from nonattainment determinations. Thus, Appendix K provides, in part, that measured exceedances of the PM-10 NAAQS in an area may be discounted from decisions regarding nonattainment status if the data are shown to be influenced by uncontrollable events caused by natural sources of particulate matter. The 1986 exceptional events guideline contains EPA's guidance regarding the process States should follow when dealing with PM-10 air quality data that may be eligible for the adjustments authorized under section 2.4 of Appendix K.

Subsequently, the Act added section 188(f) which provides EPA with discretionary statutory authority to waive either a specific attainment date or certain planning requirements for serious PM-10 nonattainment areas that are impacted significantly by nonanthropogenic sources. The EPA states in current PM-10 guidance documents that it interprets the section 188(f) waiver provision to mean that the data exclusion policy contained in Appendix K and the procedures described in the exceptional events guideline no longer apply.

Under this natural events policy, those statements no longer reflect EPA's interpretation of the relationship between the section 188(f) waiver provision, Appendix K, and the exceptional events guideline and should be treated as revised to the extent described herein.

In establishing this natural events policy, EPA now believes that, under certain circumstances, it is appropriate to again exclude PM-10 air quality data that are attributable to uncontrollable natural events from the decisions regarding an area's nonattainment status. The discussion in the Appendix at the end of this memorandum briefly describes the legal rationale underlying this revised interpretation.

Description of Policy

The policy described in this document addresses PM-10 NAAQS violations caused by natural events in areas designated unclassifiable or attainment. It also addresses certain reclassification and redesignation questions for PM-10 nonattainment areas. This policy applies at the time the State determines that a PM-10 NAAQS has been violated due to natural events and addresses the question of what should be done to protect public health. The policy provides that EPA will: (1) exercise its discretion under section 107(d)(3) not to redesignate areas as nonattainment if the State develops and implements a plan to respond to the health impacts of natural events; and, (2) redesignate nonattainment areas as attainment by applying Appendix K, on a case-by-case basis, to discount data in circumstances where an area would attain but for exceedances that result from uncontrollable natural events.

The guiding principles followed in developing this policy are:

1. Protection of public health is the highest priority of Federal, State, and local air pollution control agencies.

2. The public must be informed whenever the air quality in an area is unhealthy.

3. All valid ambient air quality data should be submitted to the EPA Aerometric Information Retrieval System (AIRS) and made available for public access.

4. State and local agencies must take appropriate reasonable measures to safeguard public health regardless of the source of PM-10 emissions.

5. Emission controls should be applied to sources that contribute to exceedances of the PM-10 NAAQS when those controls will result in fewer violations of the standards.

Definition of PM-10 Natural Events

Volcanic and seismic activities: Ambient PM-10 concentrations caused by volcanic eruptions or seismic activity will be treated as due to natural events. Volcanic eruptions contribute to ambient PM-10 concentrations in two ways: (1) with emissions of primary PM-10 (e.g., ash), and (2) with emissions of precursor pollutants (e.g., sulfur dioxide) that react to form secondary particulate matter. Seismic activity (e.g., earthquakes) can also contribute to ambient PM-10 concentrations by shaking the ground, causing structures to collapse and otherwise raising dust (primary PM-10 emissions).

Also, emissions caused by anthropogenic activities that re-entrain volcanic ash during the first year (12 months) following an event will be treated as due to the natural event. One year is considered adequate time for cleaning ash deposits from areas where anthropogenic activities (e.g., vehicle traffic) would cause reentrainment. After 1 year, only emissions resulting from reentrainment of ash by high winds will be treated as due to a natural event.

Wildland fires: Ambient PM-10 concentrations caused by smoke from wildland fires will be treated as due to natural events if the fires are unwanted fires, not designated or managed as prescribed fires, and requiring appropriate suppression action by the wildlands manager.

For the purposes of this policy, wildland fire natural events are limited to unwanted fires that do not meet a prescription (wildfires) and, therefore, require appropriate suppression actions. Wildland prescribed fires, burning of forest harvest residues, agricultural burning, and fires for land clearing are not covered by this natural events policy. The EPA will develop broader guidance in the near future to address issues raised by smoke emissions from wildland prescribed fires and other policy issues surrounding prevention of significant deterioration, conformity, visibility protection programs and regional haze.

High Winds: Ambient PM-10 concentrations due to dust raised by unusually high winds will be treated as due to uncontrollable natural events under the following conditions: (1) the dust originated from nonanthropogenic sources, or (2) the dust originated from anthropogenic sources controlled with best available control measures (BACM).

The BACM must be implemented at contributing anthropogenic sources of dust in order for PM-10 NAAQS exceedances to be treated as due to uncontrollable natural events under this policy. Therefore, BACM must be implemented for anthropogenic dust sources contributing to NAAQS exceedances in attainment and unclassifiable areas and in moderate PM-10 nonattainment areas. In unclassifiable and attainment areas, BACM must be implemented for those contributing sources for which it has been defined within 3 years after the first NAAQS violation attributed to high wind events or from the date of this policy. In these same areas, implementation should be as expeditious as practicable for sources for which BACM are undefined.

The conditions that create high wind events vary from area to area with soil type, precipitation and the speed of wind gusts. Therefore, the State must determine the unusually high wind conditions that will overcome BACM in each region or subregion of the State.

Response to NAAQS Violations

If natural events cause ambient concentrations of PM-10 to violate a NAAQS, a plan should be developed to address future events. A natural events action plan (NEAP) should include commitments to:

1. Establish public notification and education programs. Such programs may be designed to educate the public about the short-term and long-term harmful effects that high concentrations of PM-10 could have on their health and inform them that: (a) certain types of natural events affect the air quality of the area periodically, (b) a natural event is imminent, and (c) specific actions are being taken to minimize the health impacts of events.

2. Minimize public exposure to high concentrations of PM-10 due to future natural events. Programs to minimize public exposure should: (a) identify the people most at risk, (b) notify the at-risk population that a natural event is imminent or currently taking place, (c) suggest actions to be taken by the public to minimize their exposure to high concentrations of PM-10, and (d) suggest precautions to take if exposure cannot be avoided.

3. Abate or minimize appropriate contributing controllable sources of PM-10. Programs to minimize PM-10 emissions may include:

(a) volcanic and seismic activities - cleaning ash and dust deposits from areas where it would be re-entrained into the air by anthropogenic activities;

(b) wildland fires - prohibition of other burning activities during wildland fire events and steps to minimize fuel loadings in areas vulnerable to fire. Appropriate suppression actions, as determined by the wildlands manager, should be taken for fires that do not meet a prescription. The Federal Wildland Fire Policies require that fire management plans (FMP) be developed for all Federal lands with burnable vegetation. It is anticipated that a goal of FMP will be to prevent NAAQS exceedances caused by wildland fires. Therefore, EPA envisions treating future FMP as acceptable plans for mitigating the public health impacts of smoke from wildland fires on Federal lands. Similar FMP should be developed to serve the same purpose for State and private wildlands.

(c) High winds - application of BACM to any sources of soil that have been disturbed by anthropogenic activities. The BACM application criteria require analysis of the technological and economic feasibility of individual control measures on a case-by-case basis. The NEAP should include analyses of BACM for contributing sources. The BACM for windblown dust include, but are not limited to, application of chemical dust suppressants to unpaved roads, parking lots and open areas; dust suppression at construction sites; use of conservation farming practices on agricultural lands; tree rows and other physical wind breaks; restricting or prohibiting recreational off-road vehicle activities; and use of surface coverings. If BACM are not defined for the anthropogenic sources in question, step 4 below is required.

4. Identify, study and implement practical mitigating measures as necessary. The NEAP may include commitments to conduct pilot tests of new emission reduction techniques. For example, it may be desirable to test the feasibility and effectiveness of new strategies for minimizing sources of windblown dust through pilot programs. The plan must include a timely schedule for conducting such studies and implementing measures that are technologically and economically feasible.

5. Periodically reevaluate: (a) the conditions causing violations of a PM-10 NAAQS in the area, (b) the status of implementation of the NEAP, and (c) the adequacy of the actions being implemented. The State should reevaluate the NEAP for an area every 5 years at a minimum and make appropriate changes to the plan.

Form and Timing of the Response

The NEAP should be developed by the State air pollution control agency in conjunction with the stakeholders affected by the plan. Development of a NEAP for wildland fires should include input from Federal, State and private land managers in areas vulnerable to fire. Also, agencies responsible for suppressing fires and the citizens in the affected area should be involved in developing the plan. Development of a NEAP for high- wind events should include input from Federal, State and private managers of open desert lands, rangelands, agricultural lands; the construction industry; and organizations promoting the use of recreational off-road vehicles. Development of a NEAP for volcanic and seismic activities should include input from geophysicists and public works officials who will be responsible for ash removal and disposal. The plan should include documented agreements among the stakeholders as to planned actions, the implementation schedule, and the parties responsible for carrying out those actions.

At a minimum, States should develop NEAP for any areas where natural events cause or have caused a PM-10 NAAQS to be violated within 18 months of the violation or the date this policy is issued. The NEAP should be made available for public review and comment and may, but are not required to, be adopted as revisions to the SIP if current SIP rules are not revised. Final plans should be submitted to EPA for review and comment.

Documentation of Natural Events

In circumstances where a State has reason to believe that natural events have caused measured exceedances of the NAAQS, the State is responsible for establishing a clear causal relationship between the measured exceedance and the natural event. Supporting documentation concerning the natural event could include filter analysis, meteorological data (e.g., wind speed and wind direction to support a source receptor relationship), modeling and receptor analysis, videos and/or photographs of the event and the resulting emissions, maps of the area showing sources of emissions and the area affected by the event, and news accounts of the event.

In the case of high-wind events where the sources of dust are anthropogenic, the State must document that BACM were required for those sources, and the sources were in compliance at the time of the high-wind event. If BACM are not required for some dust sources, the NEAP developed must include agreements with appropriate stakeholders to minimize future emissions from such sources using BACM.

The type and amount of documentation provided for each event should be sufficient to demonstrate that the natural event occurred, and that it impacted a particular monitoring site in such a way as to cause the PM-10 concentrations measured. This documentation should also provide evidence that, absent the emissions from the natural event, concentrations of PM-10 at the monitoring site under consideration would not cause a NAAQS exceedance.

The State should also make the documentation of natural events and their impact on measured air quality available to the public for review. This may be accomplished through a number of means, such as the publishing of newspaper announcements, periodic reports on air quality in the area, and through public hearings. This would serve to allow the public an opportunity to comment on whether the causal relationship between the natural event and the air quality measurement is convincing. Also, open hearings, where State and local regulatory boards review the documentation, are useful forums in which to notify the public of potentially-important policy decisions.

When air quality data affected by a natural event are submitted to EPA for inclusion into the AIRS database, the State should request that a flag be placed on the data to indicate that a natural event was involved. Documentation to support the flagged data should be maintained by the State. A copy of the documentation should be sent to the relevant EPA Regional Office monitoring representative no later than 180 days from the time the exceedance occurred or from the date of this policy for past events. The Regional Office will acknowledge receipt of the documentation and confirm that the natural event data were flagged within 60 days.

Current PM-10 Nonattainment Areas

States may request that a moderate nonattainment area not be reclassified as serious if it can be demonstrated that the area would attain the standards by the statutory attainment date but for emissions caused by natural events. Similarly, States may request redesignation of nonattainment areas to attainment if it can be demonstrated that the area would be meeting the NAAQS but for the emissions caused by natural events. This policy applies to emissions caused by natural events that have occurred since January 1, 1994.

Approval of the above requests will be made by EPA on a case-by-case basis as determined by the sufficiency of the information submitted by the State to substantiate its claim. At a minimum, the State must have adopted a SIP for the area which demonstrates that, but for the emissions from natural events, the area would be able to attain the NAAQS. All of the requirements under section 107(d)(3)(E) of the Act must also be satisfied before an area can be redesignated to attainment. Those requirements include the submittal of a maintenance plan under section 175A, among other things. The maintenance plan for areas affected by natural events must include a NEAP.

Failure to Submit a Natural Events Action Plan

If a State fails to submit an adequate NEAP within 18 months in response to violations of a PM-10 NAAQS, EPA will notify the governor of the State that the area should be redesignated as nonattainment. The EPA's action, in such instances, would be authorized under the Act based on the conclusion that the health of citizens affected by such events is not being protected by the State.

Once the area violating the NAAQS is designated nonattainment, the State will be required to adopt a federally- enforceable SIP revision and address the sources of PM-10 emissions. Most likely, the SIP revision will include many of the same mitigative measures that could have been included in a NEAP.

APPENDIX - INTERPRETATION OF THE CLEAN AIR ACT (ACT) AS AMENDED IN 1990

Section 107(d)(4)(B) of the Act, as amended in 1990, provided EPA with the authority to designate initial areas as nonattainment for PM-10. Where such determinations involved an assessment of a potential PM-10 nonattainment area's air quality data, Congress expressly required such assessments to be made in accordance with Appendix K (section 107(d)(4)(B)(ii)). Since, upon enactment, Congress did not alter or revise Appendix K in any way, all the provisions of Appendix K, including section 2.4, remained applicable under the Act. Among other things, section 2.4 authorizes EPA to discount air quality data that are attributable to "an uncontrollable event caused by natural sources" of PM-10. Consequently, if an area's nonattainment problem was attributable to uncontrollable natural sources, application of section 2.4 of Appendix K would allow the data from the uncontrollable natural event to be excluded from regulatory determinations regarding an area's nonattainment status.

The Act also added section 188(f) which specifically addresses the adverse influence of nonanthropogenic PM-10 sources. This section provides EPA with discretionary authority to waive a specific attainment date for all areas or certain planning requirements for serious PM-10 nonattainment areas that are significantly impacted by nonanthropogenic sources.

The EPA previously interpreted the inclusion of such an express waiver provision in the 1990 Amendments as implying that Congress may have intended to limit the application of section 2.4 of Appendix K. The argument in support of this interpretation was that in contrast to section 2.4 of Appendix K, which contemplates the discounting of data due to emissions from certain events, the section 188(f) waiver provisions envisioned that adjustments prompted by adverse air quality impacts that are attributable to data from natural uncontrollable sources of PM-10 should be made only after all the data have been considered and the area has been designated nonattainment.

The EPA, however, believes that this is not the only reasonable interpretation of the Act's provisions that is possible. The EPA believes that the congressional directive in section 107(d)(4)(B)(ii) to base designation decisions on Appendix K, and the differences in how section 188(f) and Appendix K address issues related to emissions from natural sources, indicate that it is not necessary to conclude that section 188(f) limits the application of section 2.4 of Appendix K. Rather, it is possible to view both section 188(f) and section 2.4 of Appendix K as being operative and dealing with related but distinct aspects of the issues connected with emissions from natural PM-10 sources.

The starting point for this analysis is section 107(d)(4)(B)(ii), which, by operation of law, designated nonattainment any area with data showing a violation of the PM-10 NAAQS before January 1, 1989 "(as determined under part 50, appendix K of title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations)." In that section, Congress required the use of Appendix K in designating areas nonattainment without indicating that any portion of Appendix K was to be considered invalid. Thus, that provision indicates that Congress intended designation decisions to be based on that appendix, including the procedures in section 2.4 regarding exceptional events.

Notably, section 2.4 defines an exceptional event as "an uncontrollable event caused by natural sources of particulate matter or an event that is not expected to recur at a given location." Thus, exceptional events include both uncontrollable natural sources and nonrecurring events related to any kind of source of particulate matter. Section 2.4 further provides that data from such events may be discounted (i.e., EPA may compensate for such data or exclude such data entirely from decisions regarding an area). Consequently, Appendix K contemplates that data from "exceptional events" may be discounted, including, but not limited to, data due to emissions from uncontrollable natural events.

On the other hand, section 188(f), which was enacted by Congress in the same amendments as section 107(d)(4)(B)(ii), discusses PM-10 natural sources in terms of whether they are "anthropogenic" or "nonanthropogenic." It does not discuss such sources or emissions in the terms of Appendix K (i.e., it does not discuss matters in terms of exceptional or nonexceptional events, nor does it distinguish between uncontrollable and controllable natural sources). In general, section 188(f) provides that EPA may waive certain requirements where EPA determines that anthropogenic sources do not contribute significantly to a violation of the PM-10 standard, and that EPA may waive a specific attainment date if it determines that the contribution of nonanthropogenic emissions to a violation is demonstrated to be "significant."

As Congress, without express exception, directed the use of Appendix K in determining whether areas were attaining the PM-10 standard, EPA believes it is reasonable to interpret section 188(f) as not limiting the use of that appendix, provided that such an interpretation does not render section 188(f) invalid. The EPA believes that the approach taken in this natural events policy does not do that, and that it represents a reasonable harmonization of these provisions of the Act and the language of Appendix K regarding exceptional events.

Under EPA's revised interpretation, section 188(f) continues to have force and effect. As section 188(f) addresses the issues in terms of "anthropogenic" and "nonanthropogenic" sources, not in terms of exceptional events (which are defined in Appendix K as both uncontrollable natural events and nonrecurring events from both natural and other sources), it is possible to view the waivers of section 188(f) as being potentially applicable only to areas that are designated nonattainment because the data do not qualify for adjustment under Appendix K. For such areas, it may be reasonable and appropriate to grant waivers from some requirements that simply do not make sense in light of the nature of the sources generating the PM-10 problem in the area. Thus, EPA's new interpretation does not render section 188(f) meaningless. Consequently, EPA believes that the exercise of its discretionary authority under Appendix K to discount or de-weight air quality data that are affected by uncontrollable natural sources of PM-10 is reasonable and appropriate.

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