EPA Lightens Up On Muskegon

September 18, 2004
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MUSKEGON — New clean-air rules that federal regulators plan to implement should solve West Michigan’s problems with air pollution that drifts into the region from the west, the nation’s top environmental regulator says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to finalize by the end of the year a new rule that is designed to reduce by 70 percent over a decade the power plant and diesel engine emissions that contribute to so-called transport pollution. The reductions would dramatically reduce the pollution that originates in Chicago, Gary, Ind., and Milwaukee and drifts across Lake Michigan, putting several western Michigan counties out of compliance with federal clean-air standards, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said.

In pursuing the Clean Air Interstate Rule, the EPA is moving to address transport pollution and mitigate any resulting unfair regulatory burdens on downwind communities, Leavitt said. The emissions reduction the rule is intended to generate would bring all of the western Michigan counties now deemed out of compliance with clean-air standards into compliance, he said.

“We’re now going to get to the root of the dilemma,” Leavitt said last week during an appearance in Muskegon. “The problem here is with transport pollution.”

The EPA’s intent, he said, is to “create an equitable application” under the federal Clean Air Act and finally resolve transport pollution issues nationwide. In West Michigan and Muskegon County, which last April received a harsher non-compliance designation from the EPA than neighboring counties, violations of clean-air standards are clearly the result of transport pollution from communities upwind, Leavitt said.

“Our purpose is to create an equitable application of the Clean Air Act and to provide a solution where the problem is. In this case, the problem is with power plant emissions being transported to Muskegon,” Leavitt said. “We’re now going to take care of the problem they (local officials) couldn’t reach out and deal with, which is the power plants” upwind.

The EPA in April designated 25 counties in Michigan, and several hundred others nationwide, as “non-attainment” because their air quality violates federal ground-level ozone standards. Kent, Ottawa and Allegan counties each received a “marginal” classification, the lowest the EPA could designate.

Muskegon County received a “moderate” classification, a higher level that potentially could require more stringent pollution controls on the county, including costly vehicle tailpipe emissions testing and vapor recovery systems on fuel pumps.

Leavitt on Thursday visited Muskegon to announce that the EPA has approved an appeal of the designation from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to reduce the classification for MuskegonCounty from “moderate” to “marginal.”

The change gives Muskegon County the same classification as others in the region and, in one small way, eases the concerns of local business and community leaders that it put the county at an economic development disadvantage to others when competing for jobs and new business investments.

“We all suffer from this transport issue. We all should be on the same status,” said Sam Wendling, Muskegon’s County’s community development director. “This treats us all on a level playing field and we don’t have to be a step down.”

The change also moves up from 2010 to 2007 the date Muskegon County must attain compliance with clean-air rules and provides much more flexibility in addressing the issue on a local level.

The EPA’s decision to reduce Muskegon County’s classification and pursue the planned Clean Air Interstate Rule, which stems from the lack of a legislative remedy, reflecs the agency’s willingness to finally tackle transport pollution administratively, said U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland.

“What I hear him saying is, ‘We found a way to deal with transport and they found a way to deal with the problem of West Michigan,’” said Hoekstra, who has dealt with transport pollution issues and the resulting regulatory fights for 10 years. “They have been creative in fixing the problem.”

That creativity is needed because the federal Clean Air Act provides the EPA little latitude in addressing regional transport pollution problems, which is why the planned Clean Air Interstate Rule is applicable nationwide and affects all power plants.

Any other solution requires congressional changes in the Clean Air Act, Leavitt said. The EPA’s pursuit of the rule seeks to balance environmental protection and economic issues by not imposing regulatory burdens that can cause economic hardships on local communities, he said.

“With this action we’re accomplishing cleaner air and a competitive environment,” Leavitt said.

Yet the new rule does come with an estimated cost of $50 billion over 10 years for electric utilities to install new pollution control equipment.

The cost ultimately will turn up in electric rates, according to a spokesman for Consumers Energy Co., the state’s largest electric utility.

“We will comply with whatever the final rule or law is from Washington, but we have to realize there is going to be costs that go with it,” said Roger Morgenstern, communications director for Consumers Energy’s B.C. Cobb Plant in Muskegon.

Leavitt termed any potential effect on electric rates in the future a “rather insignificant increase but it will indeed do the trick and it will keep us competitive as a nation.”    

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