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Published: Friday, 4/16/2004

Curb pollution U.S. tells area; Monroe, Lenawee counties face vehicle tests

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Lucas, Wood, and Allen were among 474 counties in 31 states told yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pursue deeper air pollution cutbacks.

The agency claims public health has been endangered by excessive smog.

But only two counties in this area - Monroe and Lenawee - face the likelihood of mandatory vehicle exhaust system tests.

Details of the vehicle emission tests, including costs, were not immediately known. Similar checks under Ohio's controversial E-check program cost about $20 a year.

Monroe and Lenawee are among eight counties in a southeast Michigan air district identified as the Detroit-Ann Arbor area.

That region yesterday was classified as having a moderately bad smog problem, which means that several measures to reduce ground-level ozone will be implemented. One of them is mandatory vehicle exhaust system tests.

The only way Monroe and Lenawee can elude that requirement is by appealing their status as part of the Detroit-Ann Arbor area, which officials said they plan to do.

The decision will come down to how the U.S. EPA reacts to Michigan's implementation plan.

All states are required to submit plans for achieving the new ground-level ozone standard by June 15, 2007.

Royce Maniko, Monroe County planning director, said the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments will do its part to help Monroe and Lenawee avoid mandatory vehicle tests.

But a council spokesman wasn't optimistic, even after his organization received support from such influential politicians as U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn), U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.).

"Unless the agency is compelled for some reason to change the rules, we're stuck with it," said Chuck Hersey, the council's environmental programs manager.

The irony isn't lost on Bedford Township Supervisor LaMar Frederick.

He noted how his township will be more highly regulated than Toledo - even though it's a suburban-rural mix in which an estimated half of its working residents head south and cross into Ohio for jobs on any given day.

Portions of Michigan were subjected to vehicle emission checks for nearly a decade until the state disbanded the program in the mid-1990s.

There's one consolation prize of its being reinstated - the process should go smoother.

The U.S. EPA in 2002 required states to acquire equipment that allows them to analyze vehicles'

on-board diagnostic computer systems.

The equipment can download catalytic converter information from 1996 and newer vehicles in seconds. Older vehicles will continue to be put on treadmill-like equipment to have their emissions tested in a more cumbersome method.

Yesterday's designations were prompted by a lawsuit the American Lung Association and other groups - including the Ohio Environmental Council - filed out of frustration caused by delays in tightening ground-level ozone restrictions.

The current process dates back to 1997 and is the first major update since former President Jimmy Carter was in office.

The pollutant is one of six that are supposed to be reviewed at least once every five years for possible updates, based on the latest science.

Molly Fontana, director of the American Lung Association of Ohio, said the designations are "proof positive that Ohioans breathe some of the dirtiest air in the nation."

Before yesterday's EPA announcement, Ohio had only four counties - all surrounding or near Cincinnati - out of compliance for ground-level ozone. After the announcement, it had 33.

The reason? The old one-hour standard for measuring ground-level ozone that had been around for years was too weak to protect public health, according to Bhrat Mathur, acting U.S. EPA Midwest regional administrator. The new standard will be based on an eight-hour average with a much lower threshold.

The announcement, he said, primarily is about health.

"It will mean less sickness and less suffering for Americans, especially our children," Mr. Mathur said.

He said the agency believes its actions will result in fewer asthma attacks and respiratory problems as well as fewer sick days for both schoolchildren and workers.

"Our nation will be healthier and more productive," Mr. Mathur said.

He also acknowledged progress that has been made: Since the Clean Air Act was adopted in 1970, the nation's air pollution has been cut in half.

"That's impressive, but we're not done. We're raising the bar higher," Mr. Mathur said.

Even so, some national environmental groups continued to question the Bush administration's commitment.

The Clean Air Trust claimed the U.S. EPA had 506 counties on its list in December, then removed 32 because of political lobbying.

Ohio began yesterday with 14 counties - seven in the Cleveland-Akron area and seven in the Cincinnati-Dayton area - with E-check. All 14 will continue to have that program for the time being, even though the only part of Ohio classified yesterday as having a moderately bad smog problem was the Cleveland-Akron area, Heidi Griesmer, Ohio EPA spokesman, said.

The U.S. EPA said it will not allow such programs to be discontinued unless state and local officials can prove there would be no backsliding.

Counties that were designated out of compliance yesterday had their smog problems ranked according to a six-tier scale: Basic, marginal, moderate, serious, severe, and extreme.

Some 104 of the nation's 474 counties that were designated are in the Midwest.

Sixty-four Midwest counties, including Lucas, Wood, and Allen, were ranked as basic non-attainment. Forty, including Monroe and Lenawee, were ranked as moderate.

The Los Angeles area was the only one previously ranked as extreme. Its ranking was upgraded yesterday to severe. But it and several other counties in southern California continue to have the nation's worst smog problems, according to the rankings.

Any county ranked as non-attainment will face greater restrictions on industrial development: The severity depends upon where counties are ranked along the six-tier scale. Development can occur, but only when officials can show that pollution from new major sources will be offset through reductions achieved by other means.

For Lucas, Wood, Allen, and other counties in basic non-attainment, the restrictions are the lightest. They could wind up back in compliance after posting three consecutive years of impressive results simply by reaping the benefits of upcoming improvements on power plants and industrial boilers nationally, as well as making a concerted effort to reduce traffic jams through more efficient transportation planning, officials said.

The cutoff date for projects to receive air permits under the existing rules is June 15.

Lucas, Wood, and Allen counties have until June 15, 2009, to comply with the upcoming rules. Monroe and Lenawee counties have until June 15, 2010. Failure to comply could result in stiffer development restrictions, plus a loss of federal highway funds, officials said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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