Owning up to ozone depletion; Northeast blames midwest for its smog while EPA rewrites rules

By Mike Magner
Copyright 1998 The Plain Dealer
August 9, 1998

How many pollutants from Midwestern states end up forming smog in the East? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Experts disagree on exactly how much and how far pollution is carried by the wind from utilities and factories in the industrial heartland.

Debate over the issue is hotter than the weather this summer, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prepares final rules for cutting ozone, the unhealthiest component of smog, in 22 states east of the Mississippi River.

The EPA says the eastern United States can meet strict new limits on ozone only if nitrogen-oxide emissions are reduced 85 percent by 2003. Most of the cuts would have to come from power plants in the Midwest, the EPA said, citing studies showing how prevailing winds in summer blow pollutants hundreds of miles to East Coast cities.

Midwestern and Southeastern states have been sharply critical of the EPA's plan, calling it an overreaction that would hammer consumers with higher utility bills and could threaten the regions' already tight power supplies. Final rules will be issued this fall.

"The EPA proposal is substantially flawed," said Russ Harding, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "The science simply is not there for the leap of faith EPA is making."

A recent study for the state estimated Michigan contributes no more than 4 percent of the ozone in Philadelphia, Harding said. Most of the smog in the Northeast comes from local sources, but the region hopes to avoid costly controls by blaming their problems on the Midwest, he said.

"Russ is in another world," responded Jason Grumet, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a study group for eight states in the region.

"No one in the Northeast has ever suggested our entire problem is from the Midwest," Grumet said. "But on days when we have our worst ozone, up to half the nitrogen-oxide pollution is coming from outside the region."

Nitrogen oxide is a gas emitted largely by coal-burning power plants. It mixes in sunlight with other pollutants, mainly from vehicles, to form ozone.

Even if Grumet's claim is true, Harding said, an alternative plan for cutting nitrogen oxide, drafted by Michigan and five other states, would solve the problem for far less than the EPA's estimated $2 billion.

The proposal submitted to the EPA last month calls for reductions of 65 percent by 2004, followed by studies to determine if further cuts were warranted, he said.

"We'll own up to what we contribute," Harding said. "If it's [4 percent] for us, we should do the controls necessary for what we're culpable for. We've gone way beyond that with a 65 percent reduction."

The proposal drafted by Alabama, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia - and backed by many utilities in the Midwest and Southeast - has infuriated environmentalists.

"The biggest argument against it I see is we know pollution is widespread," said Frank O'Donnell, head of Clean Air Trust, a national environmental group. "It's not just a Northeast issue. It covers a great deal of the Eastern half of the country."

EPA studies show that even with deep cuts in power-plant emissions and tighter limits on auto pollution, much of the nation still will have ozone problems in 2007, O'Donnell said.

"If you weaken what they propose here, there's clearly going to be a need for even stricter motor-vehicle controls," he said.

Utilities recognize the need to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants, but fear controls that could compromise an already tight energy supply, said Bill Beckman, manager of environmental and technical services for Consumers Power Co. in Michigan.

Coal produces 54 percent of the nation's electricity, and a larger share in the Midwest, Beckman said. But EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said the agency believes cost-effective technology is available for utilities to reduce emissions by 85 percent without harming consumers.

All alternatives will be considered as the agency reviews more than 550 comments on its proposal before issuing final rules this fall, Ryan said. But he noted that a study panel of all the Eastern states, the Ozone Transport Assessment Group, recommended up to an 85 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide.

"We chose the most protective level recommended by OTAG to achieve the highest level of protection," Ryan said. "We're here to protect public health."

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