Bad air haze 

The chemistry behind ozone pollution in Earth’s lower atmosphere begins with the burning of fossil fuels; emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles and coal-fired electric plants top the list of sources. Then come what are called volatile organic compounds – vapor from gasoline itself, before it is combusted, is one example.

Add summertime’s soaring temperatures and ultraviolet radiation from sunlight; throw in enough of a breeze to stir the mix and start it interacting. Before you know it, you have an unhealthy dose of smog that is burning eyes, clogging throats and putting people with respiratory problems in risk of a hospital visit.

But it’s not just chemistry. There’s also a strange sort of political physics involved – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In recent years, attempts to deal with ozone pollution have routinely met successful opposition from state and federal lawmakers, often with Michigan leading the way.

While state lawmakers are working on behalf of industry and electric utilities to fight clean-air measures, the state is registering some of the highest pollution levels in the country.

Of the 32 states that provide simultaneously available ozone data, reports Patricio Silva of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), this summer Michigan has logged the fifth highest number of incidents where the federal standard has been exceeded.

As anyone paying attention to notices of ozone action days realizes, the pollution problem has been particularly severe in the Detroit area. A monitoring station at East Seven Mile Road recorded 25 days where the ozone standard of 85 parts per billion had been exceeded over an eight-hour period. That is nearly double the number recorded at any of the other 25 sites located across the state.

The eight-hour standard was adopted in 1997 to provide a "more protective, real-world" method of evaluation, explains Silva. Prior to that, a one-hour standard was used. Because of the change, long-term trends are difficult to evaluate, but the consensus among environmentalists is that this summer’s ozone pollution has been significant by any measure. In the short term, however, the numbers are startling: There have been nearly three times as many ozone violations recorded at sites around the state this year as in all of 1997.

"Our air has not been healthy to breathe by any stretch of the imagination," says David Wright, a policy specialist for the Michigan Environmental Council. "This year has been real bad in terms of ozone air pollution."

In southeast Michigan alone, more than 500,000 residents with respiratory ailments are particularly susceptible to ozone pollution, which acts as a powerful respiratory irritant that can cause shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing. Children also are considered particularly vulnerable.

The threat is a serious one. A 1996 study, reported in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, linked ozone nationally "to approximately 10,000 to 15,000 hospital admissions for total respiratory illnesses, asthma, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 emergency room visits in 13 cities during the summer, ozone ‘high season.’"

Part of the reason for the number of violations this summer has been weather. It’s not just that heat adds to the creation of ozone, although that is certainly true. But when temperatures rise and people start cranking up their air conditioners, utility companies begin kicking into overdrive to meet the power demand. That means the older, coal-powered plants fuel the problem when conditions are most ripe for the creation of ozone.

(The issue of ozone creation in the lower atmosphere should not be confused with depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere, an entirely different problem that many environmentalists and scientists say is worsened by global warming.)

While we may not be able to control the temperature, we do have the power to affect the amount of ozone-producing pollutants being pumped into the air, says the NRDC’s Silva.

And on that front, he says, the news is not good.

For starters, there’s the amount of time Americans are spending behind the wheel. Since 1970, says Silva, the U.S. population has increased by 31 percent; during that same period, however, the number of vehicle miles traveled per year has jumped 127 percent.

With cars, trucks and buses contributing 30 percent of the total ozone-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, it would seem that cutting back on auto pollution would be a priority among lawmakers. But that hasn’t been the case.

This summer, while the state was experiencing some of its worst air quality this year, U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Bloomfield Hills, was leading the fight on Capitol Hill to keep fuel standards on new pickups, sport utility vehicles and minivans – some of which get as little as 12 miles per gallon – from being increased to a rate comparable with other autos.

At the time, a Knollenberg aide told the Associated Press that increasing fuel efficiency would "provide a competitive advantage to our foreign competitors, diminish vehicle safety and lead to more highway fatalities."

The fuel-standards freeze, which is supported by automakers, was part of a House transportation spending bill that passed by a vote of 429-3. Over in the Senate, a group of 31 senators signed a letter to President Bill Clinton urging him to support efforts to raise fuel-efficiency standards. To head off any such efforts, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, authored a letter of his own. It was signed by 37 senators supporting the freeze.

It is familiar territory for Knollenberg, whose office did not return calls from the Metro Times. Last year he succeeded in inserting language into EPA funding legislation that critics said would effectively prohibit the agency from using its funds to support activities connected with the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Clinton-supported treaty that attempts to reduce the burning of fossil fuels to combat global warming.

Knollenberg defended his opposition in a commentary he wrote for the publication The Hill, declaring, "Democrat and Republican lawmakers, unions and corporations, farmers and small businessmen all know that the Kyoto treaty would cause energy prices to soar, productivity to decline and American jobs to flow overseas."

In another legislative move taken this summer, Knollenberg attempted to attach what critics called a "dirty air rider" to an EPA spending bill as a way to limit the agency’s ability to curtail "cross-boundary" pollution between states by forcing electric utilities to decrease emissions.

The Michigan attorney general, acting on orders from Gov. John Engler, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit last year to prevent the EPA from implementing that same program. The suit, which is still tied up in federal court, enjoyed bipartisan support from Michigan state legislators.

The MEC’s Wright recalls a Michigan House vote in committee earlier this year to endorse a resolution supporting Engler’s position on the matter. "There was only one vote on the environmental side," laments Wright. "It is like they are actively working against anything that addresses air pollution needs."

In other words, forget about science, this is the politics of pollution and the money behind it.

Speaking of Environmental

More by Curt Guyette

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