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State air board adopts federal particulate matter standards

The Air Pollution Control Board meets at Reynolds Community College with a the Board’s logo displayed behind them
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
The Air Pollution Control Board meets at Reynolds Community College on June 4, 2024.

Analyst says Virginia localities are already in compliance with the requirements.

The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board voted to adopt federal standards for fine particulate matter found in wildfire smoke on Tuesday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently finalized new National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM 2.5 — particles smaller than 2.5 microns.

For comparison, human hair is about 50 to 70 microns wide.

Karen Sabasteanski, a Department of Environmental Quality policy analyst, told members of the air board that Virginia localities are already in compliance with the standards, meaning new emissions controls won’t be needed when the rules take effect this summer.

“Compared to the rest of the country, we’re in good shape,” Sabasteanski said.

Sabasteanski said an uptick — which was particularly high in Northern Virginia — around 2019 is attributable to the addition of DEQ-monitored particulate sensors situated near roadways.

And in 2023, smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed Virginia and other East Coast states for days, prompting air-quality warnings. Wildfire smoke carries PM2.5 and contributed to another uptick in that year.

Researchers said the size and frequency of wildfires will grow due to climate change and forestry practices that allow flammable organic matter to build up on forest floors.

Fine particulate is also released from tailpipes and smokestacks, so if parts of the commonwealth fall out of compliance in the future, the state can work to curtail emissions from those sources.

The board also voted to adopt language from a new state law regarding Northern Virginia vehicle emissions standards.

Cars in northern commonwealth localities must pass emissions inspections, because that part of the state does not meet federal ozone standards, another one of the NAAQS. The new law increases the inspection cost from $28 to $30.

Before the meeting adjourned, board members Lornel G. Tompkins and Hope F. Cupit were recognized. Their terms come to an end on June 30.

Cupit addressed the board and audience, urging them to center environmental justice concerns in their decision making.

“Environmental justice is not merely a catchphrase. It is a fundamental principle that guides us in ensuring that every community, especially those historically marginalized, has a voice in decisions that affect their health and well-being,” Cupit said.

Virginia passed the Environmental Justice Act in 2020, which contributed to the rejection of a permit for a compressor station for MVP Southgate, a proposed extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The General Assembly later voted to remove much of the air board’s permitting authority, instead handing it to DEQ.

The board also heard brief updates Tuesday on controversial permits, a state designation that requires a public hearing to be held. New or modified major sources of pollution are automatically considered controversial.

On the agenda were two permits — one for the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center, a proposed Dominion Energy natural gas peaker plant, and one for an expansion of the Southeast Public Service Authority regional landfill in Suffolk.

DEQ’s Mike Dowd, director of the air and renewable energy division, said there was no update on either since the board’s last meeting.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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