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Billings’ yearslong struggles with sulfur dioxide eased Tuesday with the announcement that its biggest polluters now comply with federal air quality standards.

Meeting with members of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will re-designate the Billings industrial corridor, which had been labeled a “non-attainment” area for sulfur dioxide pollution. The change will likely come early this summer. 

The area, which includes Exxon and Phillips 66 refineries, a sulfur chemical plant, portions of South Billings and nearly all of residential Lockwood, has been designated out of compliance with sulfur dioxide pollution since 2013.

"For three years, this community's ability to further strengthen and grow the regional economy has been hampered by a single word, non-attainment," Bullock said.

In its final rule, the EPA said the sulfur dioxide had fallen to acceptable levels under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards “as a result of the permanent and enforceable shutdown of the PPL Corette facility, whose emissions in 2009-2011 had been responsible for the area not previously meeting the NAAQS.”

Corette was a coal-fired power plant that did not have pollution scrubbers on its exhaust stack, relying instead on low-sulfur Wyoming coal for environmental compliance.

PPL chose to close Corette in 2015 rather than add EPA-required mercury pollution controls.

Tuesday, Bullock and other state officials insisted Corette's closure hadn't played a part.

"This is not really about Corette," said Tom Livers, Montana Department of Environmental Quality director. "The data that we've got to build the case for attainment over the period from 2013 to 2015, most of that time period included Corette up and running."

Corette stopped producing power in April 2015.

Sulfur dioxide, a gas produced when fossil fuels are burned, can pose respiratory illness risks, particularly to children, seniors and people with asthma. For three consecutive years, sulfur dioxide levels were often too high when recorded by an air monitoring station roughly one mile from Phillips 66 and Corette.

Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality fought non-attainment designation from the outset, arguing that the three years of high sulfur dioxide readings in 2009 through 2011 on which the designation was based were an anomaly.

In 2013, Tracy Stone-Manning, then DEQ director and currently Gov. Bullock's chief of staff, told The Gazette the troublesome sulfur dioxide readings were only around the Corette plant.

The state discouraged EPA from applying the designation to all of Yellowstone County, as the agency initially intended before reconsidering.

Bullock, a Democrat up for re-election this year, called the non-attainment designation an “unnecessary burden.”

"Now clean air and clean water are incredibly important to us as Montanans," Bullock said. "And we must work to preserve them for this and for future generations, but we also have an obligation to make sure that any regulations imposed on Montana businesses — businesses that grow our economy, support good paying jobs — actually make a difference in protecting that clean air and clean water. If they don’t, we need to fix them, which is what has been done with this non-attainment”

A non-attainment designation makes it difficult to attract new industry, said Dave Klemp, chief of DEQ's Air Resources Management Bureau.

"This designation is an economic death knell," Klemp said. "You don't go into a non-attainment area if you're a business."

The regulatory reporting requirments that go along with a nonattainment area are discouraging, Klemp said.

The designation also means the region's sulfur dioxide levels are more than maxed out, leaving no room for additional pollution.

DEQ indicated there were 15 other communities in the state with federal nonattainment designations, which the state intended to contest.

Those areas included Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Libby, Missoula and Thompson Falls, all of which have lost industrial polluters since being designated nonattainment areas for air particulate in the 1980s.

Laurel and East Helena were designated nonattainment areas for Sulfur Dioxide in the 1970s according to DEQ. Those communities have since complied with tougher standards. East Helena was also on the list for lead violations in the 1970s. 

Great Falls, Billings and Missoula were also on the list for carbon monoxide levels from 1971.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.