Health Care, Real Estate, and Sustainability

Sierra Club sues EPA over smog levels

Attorney says Ottawa County should have been included on ‘nonattainment list’ for EPA’s updated ozone standards.

August 17, 2018
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Ottawa County
Consumers Energy officials contend pollution coming across Lake Michigan from the west is the primary contributor to Ottawa County’s ozone issues. Courtesy Thinkstock

The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency covering the omission of Ottawa County from the EPA’s list of areas found to be in “nonattainment” of health-based ozone standards.

Ottawa County is one of several places across the U.S. cited in the lawsuit, filed Aug. 3 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Elena Saxonhouse is a senior attorney for the Sierra Club and member of the team that filed the suit. She said each time the EPA strengthens its air quality standards, it is obligated to review all of its air quality monitors to check for ozone precursors — nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

“In 2015, the EPA revised the standard from 75 parts per billion down to 70 (ppb) — so they made it more stringent — which triggered the EPA’s obligation to take a look at which monitors across the country violate the EPA standard,” Saxonhouse said. Those that did were marked as “nonattaining” in a report that came out earlier this year.

A nonattainment designation requires state legislators to address the pollution factors to bring air quality to federal standards by 2021.

In the report, the EPA designated a seven-county area in southeast Michigan as being in nonattainment, as well as portions of Muskegon, Allegan and Berrien counties, which ranked at 74, 73 and 73 ppb for ozone precursors, respectively.

But it left out Ottawa County, which, according to the Sierra Club, ranks seventh among all Michigan counties for emissions of ozone precursors. Ottawa County’s ozone precursor levels currently are at 68 ppb. The group said the county, along with many areas in the U.S., should be designated nonattaining because it contributes to pollution in surrounding counties.

Ottawa County also recently received an “F” grade for air quality from the American Lung Association, which uses publicly available data from the EPA ozone monitors to determine the letter grades.

Ozone in the stratosphere is beneficial because it blocks the sun’s harmful rays, but it becomes smog in the troposphere — at ground level — when it mixes with sunlight, causing lung, heart and other health problems.

NOx and VOCs are “created by energy generation: cars and trucks, tailpipes and smokestacks,” Saxonhouse said, and those emissions destroy the protective upper ozone and pollute the troposphere.

The Sierra Club points to the coal-fired smokestacks at Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell Generating Complex in West Olive as a major source of pollution. In 2017, the EPA ranked it as the fourth-highest generator of NOx emissions among power plants in the state of Michigan and the top source in West Michigan.

Katie Carey, director of corporate media relations at Consumers Energy, said in a statement Consumers is “committed to protecting the environment.”

“We have a coal-fired power plant in Ottawa County that has reduced its air emissions by 90 percent by installing over $1 billion of pollution controls over the past 10 years,” Carey said. “The primary contributing factor in Ottawa County is ozone traveling over Lake Michigan. Consumers Energy will continue to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to ensure applicable environmental requirements are met.”

The MDEQ is responsible for assisting the EPA with gathering and analyzing data from the monitors and other sources, and helping develop implementation plans to reduce air pollution to allowable levels.

Kaitlyn Leffert, an MDEQ analyst, noted Ottawa County did not receive a nonattainment designation because most of its air pollution comes from out-of-state sources, such as steel plants, other large industrial activities and transportation emissions.

“Some of that pollution is coming from lakefront cities like Gary, Indiana; Chicago; and Milwaukee, but also just from across the Midwest,” she said. “When you get the right wind patterns, it will be carried.”

Saxonhouse argued in supplemental documents to the lawsuit that computer modeling and wind patterns indicate some of the pollution measured in Allegan and Muskegon counties came from Ottawa County. According to the Clean Air Act, she said, any county with pollution contributing to monitored violations of the standard in nearby counties should be designated a nonattainment zone.

She said Consumers’ plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent and generate 40 percent of its power from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2040 is not enough — the utility needs to switch to clean energy now.

If not, it should modernize the J.H. Campbell complex in the meantime, she said, as one of three of its coal-fired boilers does not have modern controls for containing NOx emissions.

“There’s this big source of pollution right in the neighborhood. You would hope that would be addressed before 2040,” Saxonhouse said. “It’s a public health issue. It’s not just ugly to look at; it contributes to asthma, heart attacks, missed school days and missed work days — you want to address it if it’s in your backyard.”

Carey said Consumers chose the year 2040 as the target year for the clean energy and emissions reduction goal “because it is the last retirement date on the books with the Michigan Public Service Commission of all our coal plants,” and the closure timeline “is based on the useful life of the plant.”

She said the utility “would likely not” accelerate the timeline because surrounding counties are the ones marked as nonattaining, and as stated before, Ottawa County’s ozone precursor levels aren’t primarily from the power plant.

“The EPA is on record stating that modeling and an analysis of the 2009 Lake Michigan Ozone Study indicate that the violating monitors in Western Michigan (the surrounding counties) are primarily impacted by emissions from Chicago,” Carey said.

Jordan Chrispell, clean energy organizer with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in West Michigan, said Consumers’ emissions reduction process has not been as thorough as it claims.

“Consumers Energy keeps saying, ‘We invested $1 billion in cleaning up our air pollution,’ but that was for sulfur oxides, and that’s not what this is,” she said. “Coal isn’t clean, so no matter what, they’re contributing to pollution that affects our health and environment.”

Carey said the Sierra Club is “incorrect” about the nature of Consumers’ investments into emissions controls.

“The $1-billion-dollar investment included controls for NOx that were installed on two of the three units within the last 10 years, significantly reducing our NOx emissions at that site,” she said. “Our VOC emissions at the site are so small that they do not require controls.”

She said all of that information was included with Consumers’ 2018 Integrated Resource Plan filing to the Michigan Public Service Commission, which is available on Consumers’ website.

According to the EPA, Consumers reduced its NOx emissions from 5,049 tons in 2014 to 3,020 in 2017.

Saxonhouse has filed a petition for review to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The next filing in the briefing process is due Sept. 7.

She expects the appellate court could take nine months to a year to reach a decision.

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