Region Gets Flexibility With Pollution

April 23, 2004
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Now that portions of West Michigan have been formally designated as out of compliance with federal air quality standards, the question up for debate is what effect that status will have on the region’s economy.

In designating Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties among 25 in Michigan that are in non-attainment with ground-level ozone standards, federal environmental regulators accepted much of what their state counterparts sought in order to give West Michigan as much flexibility as possible in dealing with the problem.

While welcoming that flexibility, which came in recognition of the pollution that’s generated to the west and drifts across Lake Michigan, throwing the region out of compliance, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Mark Lamoine worries that the designation will still cause economic problems.

The additional regulations the region could face, even with the lowest possible designation for three of the four affected counties, potentially could raise the cost of doing business here, prompting manufacturing firms to look elsewhere to expand their business.

“That is exactly the factor that hinders business growth and can hinder drawing industries to West Michigan,” said Lamoine, chamber vice president for public policy and government affairs. “It’s still going to be a factor of consideration for businesses, and the businesses that are here are still going to have to jump through more hoops to grow.”

Yet under the confines of existing federal law, which gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency little leeway in dealing with the transport pollution that regulators readily concede creates West Michigan’s problem, the region fared relatively well, considering the far tougher designations that could have come down.

“It’s the best we could have hoped for,” Lamoine said. “The EPA exercised the most flexibility that it could.”

The EPA on April 15 formally placed a “basic” non-attainment designation on Kent, Ottawa and Allegan counties and a higher “moderate” designation on Muskegon County.

In announcing the designations for 474 counties nationwide, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said the agency’s goal is to address pollution problems without creating local economic hardship.

“We need to work together to make certain your state can, as others have in the past, clean the air while sustaining economic growth,” Leavitt wrote in a letter to the governors of 31 states.

Under the EPA’s designations, Kent, Ottawa and Allegan escaped tougher new restrictions, although industries that emit more than 100 tons of pollutants annually — power plants and large factories such as coating facilities — will face a higher level of regulatory review, as will transportation planning, to assure conformity with air-quality standards.

Muskegon, with a “moderate” designation, could have faced tougher restrictions, such as vehicle tailpipe emissions testing, but won’t because its population is below 250,000. Muskegon does face the same kind of new standards as Kent, Ottawa and Allegan.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality plans to appeal to the EPA for a 5 percent reduction in ozone standards for Muskegon and Cass counties that would lower their designation classifications, said Vinson Helwig, chief of the DEQ’s Air Quality Division.

In addition to the lower-level classifications the state sought for West Michigan, the EPA designated Allegan and Muskegon as separate non-attainment areas and put Kent and Ottawa together as a single area, as recommended by the DEQ. The EPA had originally considered lumping all four counties together as a single non-attainment area.

Separating them provides more flexibility in fashioning plans to bring each area into compliance with air standards, Hellwig said. The state has until 2007 to submit compliance plans to the EPA.

“We can look at and pick where we get the most reduction (in pollutants) at the best cost,” he said.

Counties must meet EPA air-quality standards by June 2009, although deadline extensions are available.

In providing flexibility to West Michigan, the EPA sought to minimize any economic harm that may result from the new restrictions, said John Mooney, an environmental protection specialist with the EPA’s regional office in Chicago.

Transport pollution from Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind., clearly creates ozone problems in West Michigan, Mooney said. While many communities around the nation claim transport pollution as the cause of their problem, West Michigan is the only region where the EPA provided flexibility, he said.

“We were able to offer a solution there that we didn’t offer anywhere else,” Mooney said. “Holding the area accountable for especially high levels (of ozone) — it just doesn’t make sense.”

Mooney believes the flexibility will minimize any economic effects on West Michigan and perhaps generate none at all. In other regions around the nation where new restrictions have been put into place, economic growth has continued, he said.

“We think we’ll be able to protect the environment and protect the economy at the same time,” Mooney said.

The EPA, meanwhile, plans to put more emphasis on going after regions that cause pollution problems for communities downwind. That includes a proposal announced April 14 for new rules covering power plant emissions that pollute the air in downwind communities.

Leavitt said he hopes to finalize the Clean Air Interstate Rule later this year.

The EPA non-attainment designations included areas to the west that are blamed for high ozone levels in West Michigan: the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Gary and Milwaukee — all of which received “moderate” classifications.

The EPA’s effort to begin addressing transport pollution provides some comfort for the Grand Rapids chamber’s Lamoine.

“We are very happy about that,” he said. “They’re finally going after pollution sources where it exists.”           

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