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Michigan will have trouble meeting proposed new ozone regulation


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to lower the allowed level of ozone from 75 to 65 to 70 parts per billion.

Ozone is a dangerous chemical that forms when sunlight and heat interact with emissions from cars, factories, and power plants.

"Even going to 70 (ppb) will be a monumental challenge for us in the region," says Joan Weidner of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). 

SEMCOG is the group which monitors ozone levels and coordinates actions to reduce ozone. 

"It may seem like a small change," says Weidner, "but it's really orders of magnitude in terms of the controls you'd have to put in place to meet that standard."

The U.S. EPA says reducing ozone will prevent a minimum of 750 premature deaths annually, as well as 1,400 asthma-related emergency room visits.  The agency says the benefits to lowering ozone are significantly greater than the costs of compliance.

The agency also says many areas will not have to do anything in order to meet the new regulation, because other policies and programs already in place are likely to reduce ozone, along with particulate matter and carbon dioxide emissions.

But Weidner says the big question is, will the ozone regulation go into effect before Michigan has taken enough steps to reduce the pollutant?

Weidner says the EPA will finalize the rule next year, and will likely give states another year to come up with their plans, before starting the clock on a three-year period to come into compliance.

Consumers Energy says it will take time to figure out if more action is needed in addition to what the utility is already planning.  Consumers plans to shut down six coal-fired power plants by 2016.

DTE says it will issue a statement later today.

Meanwhile, health advocates cheered the move. 

Ken Fletcher of the American Lung Association of Michigan said in a statement, "Thousands of peer-reviewed medical studies show that breathing ozone pollution is dangerous to human health. The EPA review shows harm is occurring at levels far below what is currently considered safe."

But Fletcher says the EPA should have been more aggressive, and lowered the allowable level to 60 parts per billion.

The news creates a particularly complex problem for West Michigan. 

When the region has an Ozone Action Day (a day when ozone levels are very high) it's often because of ozone drifting into the region from Gary, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois.

If those cities fail to dramatically curtail their ozone, it means West Michigan could fall out of compliance through no fault of its own.

Meanwhile, Joan Weidner says it's important to remind people that Michigan's air is much cleaner than it was 20 years ago.

"People have this sense that the air is really bad, and that's why they're doing this. When in fact, they just keep toughening the standard."

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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