Thursday, June 08, 2000

Cincinnati meets air standard

Passes EPA ozone test

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that the Cincinnati region has met the federal air quality standard for ozone, the main component of smog.

        The designation removes the blemish of poor air quality and the risk of any immediate federal sanctions for violating the law. The agency has also endorsed the region's plan to maintain clean air over the next decade, which means that steps to improve air quality will stay in effect.

        EPA Great Lakes Regional Administrator Francis X. Lyons said “citizens can be proud of reaching this milestone.”

        The Tristate had been unable to achieve the ozone standard since the late 1970s, when Congress moved to reduce air pollution. But monitoring across seven counties in Ohio and Kentucky between 1996 and 1998 found that the region was in compliance.

        The federal government permits unhealthy levels of air quality one time a year on average. The Tristate average was 0.67 during the monitoring period and continued at appropriate levels through 1999.

        Air pollution, which can cause respiratory illnesses, is mostly generated by automobile and industrial emissions. The Tristate has ordered mandatory vehicle inspections, the use of reformulated gasoline in some areas, vapor controls at gas pumps and limits on industrial releases.

        The Regional Ozone Coalition, a group of government, industry and civic leaders, has also encouraged residents to change their behavior on days when smog is heavy. People are urged to refuel their cars later in the day or refrain from mowing their lawns during smog alerts. In a partnership with British Petroleum, the coalition helped replace 27,000 leaky automobile gas caps.

        “A few years ago, the citizens of this region didn't have any idea that we had an air-quality problem,” said Judi Craig, who worked with the coalition on its public awareness campaign. “They now understand that they are contributing to the problem and they have the power to do something about it.”

        The EPA recommended the Tristate for clean air designation earlier this year, but final approval was delayed while officials considered objections from environmental groups. Glen Brand, director of the Cincinnati office of the Sierra Club, said the region does not deserve the status.

        “We are disappointed that the EPA is giving Cincinnati a passing grade on air quality using a faulty grading system,” Mr. Brand said. “We are issuing a warning today that Cincinnati's chronic poor air quality still poses a serious health risk to residents, especially to children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions.”

        The EPA attempted to upgrade its ozone standard — from one-hour air quality readings to tougher, eight-hour readings — but was successfully challenged by industry groups in federal court. The Supreme Court has agreed to re view whether the EPA has the authority to enact such restrictions.

        “It's like if your doctor said he'll use a disproven test to diagnose your illness rather than a state-of-the-art test just so that you can get a clean bill of health,” Mr. Brand said.

        Joe Kramer, vice president of economic development at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, said the EPA's decision could help the region attract businesses turned off by the thought of strict government controls on operations or employee behavior. Some companies consider air pollution a quality-of-life issue.

        “It will put us on more project lists,” he said. “We're convinced that we didn't even get a look in some cases because we weren't in attainment.”

        Ohio lawmakers, who have pushed the EPA to act for more than a year, praised the outcome as fair, if not timely. The clean air designation covers Clermont, Hamilton, Butler and Warren counties in Ohio and Campbell, Kenton and Boone counties in Kentucky.

        “Better late than never,” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who has sought to change the designation since he was governor. “We should have got this a long time ago. (EPA) bent over backwards to respond to the cries of some of these organizations.”

        Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said the region should not relax. “This is a very positive thing,” he said. “But we can't just think the air is clean enough now and go back to our bad habits.”

        Enquirer reporter Jim Hannah contributed to this article.


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