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Business interests concerned about ozone standards

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JAMES P. LEUTE
January 31, 2010
— New federal ozone standards might better protect the health of people in Rock and Walworth counties, but the prognosis might not be as sunny for businesses in the two counties.

Rock, Walworth and 17 other Wisconsin counties could be in violation of stricter smog limits advanced by the Obama administration.


While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the new limits would improve human health, business interests are concerned about the cost of complying.


“This is absolutely the worst time to be increasing regulations in terms of the hurdles already present in the business climate,” said James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development manager.


Smog, also known as ground-level ozone, forms when emissions from industrial facilities, power plants, landfills and motor vehicles react in the sun. It has been linked to serious health problems, ranging from aggravation of asthma to increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease.


The EPA wants to change rules set by the Bush administration in 2008 that ozone should not exceed 75 parts per billion over an eight-hour period.


New “primary” standards would be between 60 and 70 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. A “secondary” standard would be set seasonally to protect plants and trees.


The EPA plans to issue its new standards by August and designate counties as either in attainment or non-attainment one year later. States would be required to submit pollution reduction plans by the end of 2013, and the new standards would need to be met between 2014 and 2031, depending upon the severity of a particular area’s pollution problem.


Counties identified as being in non-attainment would need to work with state officials on plans to reduce emissions, Otterstein said. The state likely would work with local companies that hold discharge permits to lower their emissions, and the result could be costly equipment upgrades, he said.


But Otterstein wonders how the new standards would distinguish areas that are true ozone violators and those that are merely influenced by neighbors. A good part of the area’s pollution is blown in from other areas, particularly heavy manufacturing communities ringing Lake Michigan, he said.


Otterstein is curious to learn what percentage of ozone reductions would be targeted to stationary and mobile sources. Rock County has several manufacturing and utility businesses that emit material harmful to the ozone layer, but it also has two major Interstates that can be jammed with smog-emitting vehicles, he said.


Fred Burkhardt, executive vice president of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance, said the alliance would oppose new standards if they put Walworth County in a non-attainment zone.


“We’re not generating it, Milwaukee is not generating it,” Burkhardt said of local ozone levels. “It’s coming from further south. The nature of the wind pushes it up to Walworth County.


“The best thing to do would be to cure the problem instead of penalizing those who are the recipients of the problem.”


Burkhardt said if there is not emphasis on solving the root problem, local businesses that are bystanders would be forced to spend more money.


“EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a news release. “Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease.


“It dirties our air, clouds our cities and drives up our health care costs across the country.”


Since 2003, ozone readings in Rock and Walworth counties have improved.


Rock County’s lone recording station in Beloit recorded a rolling, three-year average of 69 parts per billion in 2008. That’s down from the 83 parts per billion reported in 2003.


In Walworth County, where ozone is measured in Lake Geneva, the three-year average reported in 2008 was 70, down from the 84 reported in 2003.


While the numbers haven’t been finalized for 2009, preliminary indications are that they’ll be 69 parts per billion in both counties, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.


Depending on the final standards, the EPA estimated the costs of implementation at $19 billion to $90 billion. They would yield health benefits estimated at $13 billion to $100 billion, the agency said.


Otterstein fears the cost of implementation in large part would fall on existing businesses.


The new rules, he said, also would make new companies less interested in locating to areas violating the EPA standards.


“Today’s (business) environment is all about risk mitigation, both the known risks and the unknown risks,” he said. “For those companies that have to be in a certain marketplace because of customers or suppliers, they’re going to have to grapple with how they manage the added costs of compliance.


“For those firms that don’t have to be here, they likely won’t be here.”


—Gazette reporter Pedro Oliveira Jr. contributed to this story.

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