EPAs County Air Label Will Hurt

May 21, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s a scary thought that often keeps economic developers awake at night, and now their insomnia-fueled fear has been confirmed.

It will likely cost more for a new industry to locate in Kent County than it would in 58 of Michigan’s other counties.

Kent is one of 25 Michigan counties that the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a non-attainment county, meaning the air quality in the county doesn’t meet federal clean air standards.

The good news is Kent is one of 13 counties in the Subpart 1, or Basic, category and not the ozone-richer and smoggier Subpart 2 category, which is where Muskegon County and counties in the state’s southeastern sector find themselves.

Still, Mary Maupin, with the Air Quality Division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, recently said a new industry would probably have to spend more money on anti-pollution devices in Kent than it would if it located in a county that meets clear air guidelines.

Maupin explained that a manufacturer is required to purchase the most recent control technology for a plant if it wants to locate in a non-attainment area. In attainment areas, she said, a new industry can use the “best available” technology, which is less expensive than the latest. Maupin said that gives attainment counties an advantage in luring new industry over counties that haven’t met the standards.

But how much of a monetary advantage other counties would have over Kent isn’t that easy to deduce, as Maupin told the Business Journal that it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of problem that can be defined by a precise dollar amount.

“Every process and every industry would have to do an individual review. For some industries the non-attainment and the attainment control technology will be the same, and for others, it won’t,” she said.

DEQ Permit Engineer Lynn Fiedler agreed and said sometimes it does cost more and sometimes it doesn’t. In certain cases, the equipment required is the same but the margin of safety can be higher or lower.

“One is the lowest achievable emission rate, which is the best that anybody has been required to do. The other one is best available control technology, which is the best looking at economics and other things, and it may be less restrictive than what the lowest has been,” she said.

“So it’s hard to put an actual number on it because best available control technology kind of changes with the proposal that a company has, where with lowest achievable emission rate, you know what you have to meet,” she added.

Fiedler said an offset is often more difficult to get in a non-attainment county. An offset is a reduction of emissions on better than a one-to-one basis. So for a new industry to locate here, the county would have to lower emissions at a higher amount than the incoming firm would release into the county.

“Let’s say it’s 100 tons of emissions. You can build it as long as you find 110 tons of reductions someplace else. So you’ve offset what you’ve done. But it’s not just 1-to-1, it’s 1.1-to-1,” said Fielder.

To accomplish that means shutting down dirtier operations or cleaning up existing ones. Neither is an easy task.

“Seeing we haven’t had shutdowns in the last couple of years, the options may or may not be there,” said Fielder.

Kent County should be issued its non-attainment air permit by June 15. If not, then the county will have to go through a non-attainment review.

Kent can’t make a bump-down request to lower its classification, either. Only Subpart 2 counties can make those, and Maupin said the DEQ will try to get Muskegon County’s status lowered a notch from moderate to marginal in Subpart 2.

“Kent County, as a Basic area, is under the Subpart 1 more flexible category and there is no place to bump down to from there,” she said.

The county has until 2009 to reach attainment status under the current regulations. Kent needs to lower its count of Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, by then. Businesses like dry cleaners and gas stations and small equipment like lawn mowers are considered to be the single largest source of VOCs, chemicals that vaporize into the environment.

Large manufacturing plants also are a source of VOCs.

Kent also needs to lower its count of nitrogen oxide emissions. The single largest source for these is power plants, followed by vehicular traffic. VOCs mix with nitrogen oxides, heat and sunshine to form “bad” ozone, a component of smog.

Not attaining the standards can result in a loss of federal transportation funding. Grand Valley Metro Council Transportation Director Abed Itani said the federal government could stop an expansion project, like widening a road from two to four lanes, by not letting money be spent on it until the county meets clean air standards.

Even with 25 of 83 counties not meeting federal guidelines, Maupin said Michigan was better off than other states. She said Texas has the country’s poorest air quality. And she noted that California and Chicago — whose air regularly gets blamed for the problem here — have done the most to clean the air.

“Chicago has done more than any place in Michigan has,” she said.

Maupin told the Metro Council, the region’s planning agency that manages the local ozone-alert program, that the state has to tell the EPA how it will attain clean air standards by 2007. The plan can either be done by administrative rules or legislation.

Although the current situation might be keeping economic developers from catching a good night’s sleep, Maupin and Fielder felt they should take a deep breath and relax.

“We can reduce pollution while growing the economy,” said Maupin.

“There are opportunities there for us,” said Fielder. “ We’re just going to have to find some creative ways to get around these rules.”           

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