Pollution Bureaucracy Emits Bad Odor

July 11, 2003
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The regional business community has not seen so varied an assault on the area economy as has been witnessed this year. Effects of the dot-com crash compounded by tremendous issues for the automotive supply chain and steel and agricultural import rules created challenges even before President George W. Bush flew troops to Iraq. On the heels of a now legendary fight with the Federal Prison Industries’ outright assault on local manufacturers, West Michigan learned the Environmental Protection Agency is back in town with compliance rules that cannot be affected.

Industries in West Michigan face tougher — and more costly — new air pollution regulations within the year as the EPA prepares to declare Ottawa, Muskegon, Allegan and possibly Kent counties as “out of compliance.” By every measure and EPA admission, the emissions creating a problem for all of West Michigan are “transport” pollution problems, ground level pollution that blows into West Michigan from other states. The crux of the problem is that West Michigan industry cannot affect what it does not control, and will forever be out of compliance — and paying for other states’ and industries’ pollution.

Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, hosted area chamber representatives and state legislators last week to make public the issue and its potential impact on this already beleaguered economy. It was no accident that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality suggested that West Michigan legislators gather to lead the charge for change. This issue is frustratingly politicized. The EPA is not allowed to consider transport pollution in setting punishing new standards. Those states harboring contributors are loathe to allow such consideration given the cost to their economies. Hence the move to a Republican stronghold in an attempt to force changes.

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President John Brown effectively summed it up: “What they’re able to do effectively is export their pollution. They’re more than happy to dump garbage in our street and then have us pay the cost of cleaning it up.”

While the EPA is challenged with the enormous issue of air quality, it is severely hampered in doing so or in making the polluters pay under the rules. U.S. Reps. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, appear ready to fight. A lifelong environmentalist, Ehlers last week vowed, “The EPA must come up with sensible policies that ensure that areas such as ours are not punished for pollution they did not create.”

One could hope for sensibility from the federal bureaucracy, or that other Midwestern and Eastern states with higher numbers of electoral votes also get on this bandwagon for change. The ability of this region to prosper in retaining and recruiting business hangs in the balance.           

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