Friday, April 16, 2004

Our air deemed too dirty


Now we must find, and fund, a solution

By Dan Klepal and James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The air hovering over nine Greater Cincinnati counties and about 470 others throughout the country officially became illegal Thursday.

Tough new regulations for ozone - an invisible and odorless gas that harms the respiratory system, inhibits crop growth and damages building materials - took effect with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's announcement of the counties violating the new limit.

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Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and 28 other states now have three years to write plans for how to clean the air to within legal limits by 2009.

Precisely what those plans could mean to residents isn't certain, although Kentucky officials hinted that they want to drop emissions testing on vehicles - the E-check requirement loathed by many motorists.

But in most instances, the plans will involve pollution controls that will cost you money. For example:

• You'll pay more for electricity, if utilities must cut emissions.

• You'll pay more for gasoline if the sale of cleaner-burning reformulated fuel is required. (Reformulated gas is now used in Northern Kentucky during the summer.)

• You'll pay more for paint, if new rules cut the amount of vapors that can escape while it's made.

• You'll pay more for expanded mass-transit systems.

Business leaders fear that tighter controls could cost jobs or make companies less likely to expand here.

But there could be a payoff, one that environmentalists and health officials say will be huge: fewer asthma attacks, less chance of lung disease and millions of dollars saved in health-care costs.

State officials in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana will be forced to balance the cost of new controls against those benefits in 20 areas, including ones as big as Cleveland and Indianapolis and as small as Marietta, Ohio, and Ashland, Ky.

"Today's announcement is primarily about health," said Bharat Mathur, acting administrator for U.S. EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago. Cleaner air translates also into a more productive nation, he said.

The list of counties in Greater Cincinnati violating the new clean-air rule had no surprises: Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in Northern Kentucky; Butler, Clermont, Hamilton, Warren and Clinton counties in Southwest Ohio; and part of Dearborn County in Southeast Indiana.

Only Dearborn and Clinton counties were new to the list.

The new standard trims the amount of ozone allowed in the air. It also measures that pollutant over a longer period of time - eight hours a day compared with one.

The standard was adopted in 1997 but delayed because of court challenges. Environmental and public-health groups sued to force the government into action.

While the nine Greater Cincinnati counties were ruled in violation, they were given the lowest of six failing classifications. That's important because the states will have more flexibility - and fewer orders from Washington - in determining the pollution-control measures that are right for them.

Ohio EPA Director Christopher Jones said more flexibility or not, the state still has a lot of work to do.

"We won't know how much flexibility we really have until we figure out how much reductions we need and where they need to come from," Jones said.

Ohio, like most states, is creating an inventory of sources of pollutants that help create ozone. A computer program will allow officials to test how much ozone could be reduced from old controls, such as E-check, or new ones.

LaJuana Wilcher, secretary of Kentucky's Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, said the low designation for her state's counties might allow them to do away with the unpopular vehicle emissions testing program.

She said Kentucky's plan to clean the air would involve public input and sound science.

U.S. EPA's Mathur said new national rules to cut levels of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide would do most of the work for states (such as Ohio and Kentucky) that barely fail to meet the new rules.

Business leaders weren't so sure. Michael Fisher, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, said he was encouraged that the area was given the lowest designation possible for being out of step with the new rules.

"However, we're still out of attainment. And we're going to have to intensify our efforts," he said.

The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, usually a transportation-planning agency, has formed a coalition of business, political and environmental leaders to find ideas for reducing pollution in Greater Cincinnati.

"We have two choices - sit back and let the federal government tell us what to do or engage as a region and help develop solutions that work for our region," OKI Executive Director Mark Policinski said. "We know our region best, and we have a river valley to deal with.

"Solutions that may work in Columbus, Indiana or Chicago may not work here."

E-mail dklepal@enquirer.com and jpilcher@enquirer.com




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