Law Change Needed On Air Pollution

October 24, 2003
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HOLLAND — Altering the federal Clean Air Act is the ultimate solution to assuring West Michigan isn't penalized for air pollution that's generated elsewhere and drifts across Lake Michigan, federal environmental regulators say.

Under the 1990 law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to take so-called transport pollution into consideration when prescribing solutions for a region's air quality problems.

EPA administrators readily concede that West Michigan's problems with ground-level ozone, which can cause health problems, particularly for people with respiratory ailments, stem from air pollution transported across the lake from Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary, Ind. They plan to pursue the least stringent designation on the region to avoid any economic harm.

"Our intent has never been to penalize those downwind areas for situations that are out of their control," said John Mooney, an environmental specialist in the Air & Radiation Division of the EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago. "It's (no) secret that there is a transport problem in this area."

To go beyond the 5 percent break on air-quality standards already allowed under the law, the EPA needs to have the Clean Air Act revised in a way that allows administrators to take transport pollution into account when weighing measures for improving a region's air quality.

"It does need a statutory fix," said Bharat Mathur, deputy director of the EPA's Region 5 in Chicago.

"EPA is working on exactly that point," Mathur said last week during a meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland.

A fix in the Clean Air Act could come soon, with the passage of the pending federal energy bill in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has had language inserted into the proposed energy bill to enable the EPA to consider transport pollution and its effects on the air quality in communities downwind. Action on the bill, after being reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee, is now pending in Congress.

Hoekstra called the present situation the result of a "flaw in the law."

"It's not their (EPA's) fault. It's Congress's fault," said Hoekstra, who jokingly noted that he was first elected to the U.S. House in 1992.

For now, the EPA intends to go easy on the region, recognizing that West Michigan is unique in the nation because radiant heat that reflects off Lake Michigan adds to the heating of pollutants on hot summer days, worsening the ozone as it drifts eastward.

At the same time, the agency would welcome a legislative solution enabling the agency to consider transport pollution when addressing a region's air quality.

"It's an issue that's very high on EPA's priority list," Mooney said.

Working within existing parameters, the EPA plans to grant the 5 percent reduction for West Michigan in air-quality standards, a break that will earn the region a "marginal" or below designation for violation.

A marginal designation, the second-lowest possible, means new standards for industries emitting more than 100 tons of pollutants annually — the kind that Mooney described as a "big factory" — and better coordination among planners to assure that highway projects planned in the future don't contribute to air quality problems.

That's relatively good news for business and political leaders and state officials who have worried that the region might have to impose costly measures such as automotive tailpipe testing, vapor recovery systems on fuel pumps, and tough emissions restrictions for industry that would make it more costly to do business here, putting West Michigan at an economic disadvantage.

They worried that companies looking to expand or build a new factory would instead go to other states or counties that lack ozone pollution problems and tougher restrictions on air emissions.

For now, the EPA plans to work within the existing law's framework and try to avoid any economic hardship for the region, Mathur said.

"We intend to find all the flexibilities that the law allows us to find," he said. "We'll continue to work in that spirit of cooperation."

Mathur noted that the EPA has imposed tougher restrictions on Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary in recent years, bringing those areas into compliance with air standards.

Based on monitor readings from the summer of 2002, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties are among the several counties facing a non-attainment designation for violating federal air-quality standards. The list will likely include Kent County, where violations were recorded this past summer, when it's finalized next April.

Affected regions would have until 2007 to implement plans to become compliant with clean-air standards.

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