EPA proposal criticized by WMC while environmental groups focus on health

The state’s largest business group says the EPA’s recent proposal to classify more Wisconsin counties as falling short on ozone pollution standards will harm businesses, while environmental groups are focusing more on human health impacts.

Affected are: Racine, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties, and parts of Kenosha, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Door counties.

These parts of the state would receive “nonattainment” designation with the EPA’s 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone. These standards, put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration, shifted the definition for clean air from 75 parts-per-billion of ozone down to 70 ppb.

This designation would mean more regulation to keep the current level of ozone from rising.

“Business growth in east and southeast Wisconsin will be greatly impacted by this decision,” says Lucas Vebber, general counsel and director of environmental and energy policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

According to WMC, the EPA notified Gov. Scott Walker just before Christmas of the proposal, and the agency must wait 120 days from that notification before taking action.

During that time, the EPA says it will work with state officials on the boundaries of the designated areas, and could alter the designation based on additional information submitted by the state before the end of February. The agency will also soon announce a 30-day comment period.

After considering any additional information presented by Gov. Walker or other stakeholders, the EPA says it will make its final decision in the spring.

Vebber says federal legislators need to take action against “this Zombie Obama-EPA regulatory agenda and restore common sense to air permitting.”

But Bill Davis, director of Wisconsin’s John Muir chapter of the national Sierra Club, says the pressures on businesses and local governments that would come with this designation aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“One thing we’ve seen since the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act passed in the early 70s, is they have driven innovation,” Davis said. “They were intended to do so, and that’s the way it worked out — innovation, different thinking has come out of these sorts of challenges.”

Davis points to examples like Sheboygan and Chicago as areas that have received nonattainment designation and still thrived economically.

“To have a knee jerk reaction that this will cause people to lock the doors and throw away the keys to their businesses… that’s not the way it has worked,” he said.

Jon Drewsen, communications manager for Clean Wisconsin, says these designations are put in place to protect people from the health and economic costs of air pollution.

“Air quality in these counties is poor, and ozone is contributing to that bad air quality. And when air quality is poor, that’s bad for public health,” Drewsen said. “It’s clear that ozone pollution contributes to respiratory issues like asthma and emphysema.”

Davis notes both in Wisconsin and in other areas of the country, there has been a dramatic rise in childhood asthma and other breathing disorders.

“That’s driving this,” he said. “They’re trying to reduce the number of emergency room visits.”

Vebber argues the EPA is holding Wisconsin residents and businesses accountable for polluters in other states and even other countries. Davis says he’s often heard arguments like these blaming Illinois or Indiana.

“They say since we’re not causing the problem, we don’t have to do anything about it,” Davis said. “The fact is, pollutants are in the air and they’re a public health concern… regardless of source, we can’t ignore that it’s there.”

See the EPA’s proposal: http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-12/documents/wi-epa-resp-ozone.pdf

–By Alex Moe