Senators Ask EPA To Lighten Up

April 12, 2004
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Because of pollution that drifts across Lake Michigan, this state’s two U.S. senators are urging federal environmental regulators to go easy on West Michigan when designating areas that violate clean-air standards.

Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to accept the state’s recommendation for boundaries of areas that are designated as “non-attainment” and take into account the “overwhelming” ozone pollution that blows into the region from Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind.

“This puts West Michigan counties in a situation that is completely unacceptable,” Levin and Stabenow wrote in a March 30 letter to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt.

“It makes no sense to hold a county in non-attainment because of transported ozone — in other words, when that county neither caused its air quality problems nor can it cure those problems,” the letter stated. “We should not waste resources on expensive remedies which don’t fix the problem.”

Transport pollution is recognized, even by the EPA, as the primary cause of the region’s non-compliance with clean-air standards in the federal Clean Air Act. As a result, West Michigan counties face new regulations that business and political leaders worry will drive up the cost of doing business, driving investments and job creation elsewhere.

“How can we compete as a region with this hanging over our heads?” asked Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA this week will designate several western Michigan counties — Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan among them — as violating clean-air standards, which would result in the imposition of new regulations to address ground-level ozone.

While EPA administrators readily concede that the region’s ozone problems largely stem from transport pollution, there’s little they can do about it. The Clean Air Act provides the EPA no ability to take into account the effects transport pollution has on a downwind region’s air quality, other than to grant a 5 percent reduction in federal standards.

At a meeting last November with local leaders, regional EPA administrators promised to minimize any new regulations so as not to harm the region’s economy.

Relief for the region was proposed late last year when U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, had language inserted into the massive energy bill that was making its way through Congress. The amendment would have postponed new regulations for addressing West Michigan’s ozone problems and established a two-year EPA demonstration project to examine the effects of transport pollution.

The relief never came, as the energy bill stalled in the Senate after passing the U.S. House, where among the opponents to the overall legislation was U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids. In the Senate, Levin and Stabenow have been among a group of senators successfully blocking the bill.

While welcoming the senators’ appeal to the EPA, Englehart said she’d like to see them go further by lifting their objections and pushing the energy bill to a vote.

“We’d like to see them take the passion and fervor that letter indicates about the unfair situation West Michigan is in and take that to the Senate chambers and help get that energy bill passed,” she said.

In their letter, Levin and Stabenow asked for a meeting with the EPA administrator and argued that placing restrictions on a region that does not cause its pollution problems and cannot prevent transport pollution is “inconsistent” with the intent of the Clean Air Act.

They urged the EPA to follow the recommendations of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which has asked federal regulators to provide flexibility when they set boundaries for areas designated as non-attainment. Rather than designate the entire region as a single non-attainment area, the DEQ is asking the EPA to group Kent and Ottawa together as one area and for separate designations for Muskegon and Allegan counties.

“This will minimize the arbitrary and unfair challenges they face due to the overwhelming transport,” Levin and Stabenow wrote to the EPA.  

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