Air Rules May Clog Economic Engine

    Industries across West Michigan face tougher and more costly new air pollution regulations in the near future, a situation that business and political leaders say will cause considerable economic harm to the region.

    As the state prepares to recommend to federal regulators this week which counties to designate as out of compliance with new clean-air rules — with Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties among them, and possibly Kent County in the future — the push is on to mitigate the potential economic effects.

    “We have a great economic engine here in West Michigan and we want to keep that engine rolling along,” state Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, said last week during a meeting with local legislators and business leaders.

    The fear among business and political leaders is that the added burden that comes with a noncompliant designation will drive up the costs of doing business in West Michigan, causing firms looking to locate here to avoid the region and existing industries to undertake plant expansions elsewhere.

    “Washington could deliver a severe blow to our employment base if they follow through on this,” said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids.

    During last week’s session in Grand Rapids, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality leaders indicated that the state, in seeking to comply with the new clean-air rules, will push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force additional pollution-control measures on neighboring states where industries generate much of the ground-level ozone pollution that blows into West Michigan and nudges many counties here out of compliance.

    The DEQ wants the EPA to at least allow the state to implement new pollution-control measures in a way that mitigates the economic burden. DEQ administrators hope the EPA will take into account the transport pollution problem and grant the state flexibility in addressing the issue, including allowing a 5 percent reduction in clean-air standards for the region.

    “Those more stringent controls should not be necessary because a major part of the ozone is coming into the state,” said G. Vinson Hellwig, chief of the DEQ’s Air Quality Division.

    Industries in counties designated as “non-attainment” are certain to face increased standards for pollution permits and more stringent emissions controls, Hellwig said. Other possible measures include vehicle tailpipe testing, vapor recovery systems on gas pumps that would bump up the cost of fuel, and lower emissions requirements for new and expanded production plants.

    Yet those measures still wouldn’t do much to help West Michigan unless transport pollution is addressed. Because transport pollution is so prevalent, West Michigan wouldn’t even come into compliance with new federal clean-air rules unless actions are taken in states where the problem originates, DEQ Director Steven Chester said.

    “They need to do more because we’re continuing to suffer from that transport problem,” Chester said. “It just doesn’t make any sense for the federal government to insist on draconian levels of control that don’t do anything to bring the area into compliance and puts the counties at an economic disadvantage.”

    Political and business leaders across the region have held that position for years in opposing previous attempts to designate portions of West Michigan as non-attainment. They point out that some rural counties where there is little or no industrial production have some of the highest pollution readings, as does one monitoring station placed near Lake Michigan beaches.

    While areas where the pollution originates — Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind. — have had tighter pollution-control measures imposed in recent years, the lack of recognition within the EPA of transport pollution is particularly galling to local political and business leaders from the affected areas.

    “If we’re going down this road, we’re going down this road kicking and screaming,” said state Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland. “This is asinine to have a situation like that.”

    The DEQ this week will forward a list of 13 counties to the EPA that, based on data collected over a three-year period from 2000 to 2002, are out of compliance with new standards for ground-level ozone, a colorless gas caused by a chemical reaction that occurs during the warm-weather months when emissions are heated by the sun. That list will include Allegan, Ottawa and Muskegon counties.

    The EPA, using updated data from 2001 to 2003, will make a final decision in April 2004 on which counties to designate as non-attainment. Based on data collected so far this summer, there’s a good chance that Kent County could receive non-attainment designation next year, Hellwig said.

    Part of the push to prevent “overly burdensome” regulations on the region will come from a new task force spearheaded by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which considers the potential effects of the new EPA rules “devastating” for the region economically.

    A group consisting of representatives from chambers of commerce, planning organizations and economic development groups throughout the region will examine the EPA’s implementation rules and their potential effects on the region, as well as the probable non-attainment designation resulting from transport pollution and push for policy changes in federal rules that currently do not take it into account.

    The issue may come down to one of political clout. Since the states where most of West Michigan’s air pollution originates don’t have a transport pollution problem of their own, they’re likely to oppose any changes in current EPA rules that “blames the blameless and punishes the innocent,” Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President John Brown said.

    “What they’re able to do effectively is export their pollution,” Brown said. “They’re more than happy to dump garbage in our street and then have us pay the cost of cleaning it up. That’s the equivalent of what we’re talking about here.”    

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