April 19, 2014

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Backers say more toxic air monitors needed

COLUMBUS — Higher-than-expected levels of airborne toxins and other hazardous pollutants are often found by state environmental officials in residential areas near factories, which advocates said points to the need for more state-run monitoring machines.

There are no federal standards for how many air monitors that states should have to detect toxic compounds released by factories and cars. States are free to determine how many toxic monitors they need, said Motria Caudill of the U.S. EPA’s Chicago office.

Federal rules require monitors in urban areas based on population and estimated pollution problems, but monitors aren’t needed in many rural counties, said Randy Hock, the Ohio EPA’s air-monitoring manager.

Ohio meets or exceeds minimum federal requirements for monitors that detect smog and soot, state and federal officials said.

In the absence of monitors, officials often rely on faulty estimates of the amount of airborne toxins, said Frank O’Donnell of Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Clean Air Watch.

“In many instances, they find the actual level of toxins is far greater than what was projected,” he said.

For example, an Ohio EPA study around the Lanxess Corp. plastics plant in Addyston, about 20 miles west of Cincinnati, found high levels of toxic chemicals.

The agency concluded in 2005 that the cancer risk for residents was 50 times greater because of two chemicals emitted into the air from the plant. Lanxess disputed the findings.

Until the state EPA brought in monitors, no machines were nearby that could have detected the chemicals.

In 1999, the state EPA issued a report documenting dangerously high levels of benzene emissions from the New Boston Coke coal processing plant in Scioto County. The agency found that that one in 500 nearby resident had a higher-than-normal risk of developing cancer from airborne benzene.

Those examples show that more monitors are needed, said Teresa Mills, director of the Buckeye Environmental Network, an Ohio advocacy group.

But Paul Koval, an Ohio EPA toxicologist, said it shows that the agency can detect problems in areas that don’t have permanent monitors.

“We are trying to make the most wise and judicious use of the resources we have available,” he said.

The state’s Environmental Protection Agency has 234 air monitor machines that scan the skies for unhealthy levels of common pollutants, such as smog, soot and sulfur dioxide, agency officials said. Another 38 monitors sample the air for toxic metals and compounds.