Aiken and Edgefield counties could find it more difficult to grow industry and attract new businesses as a result of stronger air quality standards being considered on the federal level, according to national and state environmental regulators.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing rule changes that may put more than half of South Carolina counties, including Aiken and Edgefield, at risk of falling out of compliance with federal smog standards, a designation that would create more stringent emission limits.
According to EPA Spokeswoman Enesta Jones, the organization may target a reduction of ground-level ozone, a lung irritant and key ingredient in smog produced by power plants, factories and cars, as part of its five-year review of the Clean Air Act.
Catherine Templeton, director of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, indicated in a letter to members of the S.C. General Assembly that failing to comply with more stringent restrictions could hinder economic development as well as restrict the flow of federal transportation funding for highway and transit projects.
Will Williams, executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership, agreed with Templeton's assessment.
“It could be more costly for business to come into the area because they're going to have a more demanding regulatory review process,” Williams said.
He added, however, that he believed industry in the state has worked “extremely hard” over the last decade to operate more cleanly and efficiently.
He also said the level of potentially harmful emissions should be reduced “over the next several years” as a number of the state's coal plants are set to be closed or converted to natural gas facilities.
Jim Beasley, a spokesman for DHEC, explained that emission standards in Aiken and Edgefield counties are also largely affected by the industrial impact of the City of Augusta and Richmond County.
“Air quality knows no boundaries, including county or state boundaries,” Beasley said, explaining that curbing emissions requires cross-state partnerships and solutions.
He noted a region's level of emissions can be impacted by population growth, traffic, commuting patterns and sources of pollution.
S.C. Sen. Shane Massey explained that at this time, he doesn't have a heightened level of concern because the EPA is currently only considering the stronger restrictions and have not approved any updated regulations.
“It looks like they're giving us a warning about a potential change that the EPA might make,” Massey said referring to Templeton's letter. “The EPA has not made that change yet. They're kind of guessing at what might happen.”
He also said both Aiken and Edgefield counties currently meet ground-level ozone standards, emphasizing that's the case despite being right across the border from Augusta.
He also hoped state lawmakers wouldn't prematurely respond to the proposed higher standards being considered.
“I'd be reluctant to take action that could be excessive or even harmful to the business environment based on what you anticipate the EPA might do.”