EPA to cite 5 Midwest states for pollution

August 20, 2008 10:03:51 AM PDT
Federal officials accuse five Midwest states of violating a new pollution standard for tiny soot particles that can cause respiratory distress in children and the elderly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that counties in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin have run afoul of rules demanding that outdoor pollution particles be no bigger than 2.5 micrometers -- one-30th the diameter of a human hair.

Illinois has 14 counties on the list, Indiana has 19 counties, Michigan has 9 counties, Ohio has 28 counties and Wisconsin has 6 counties. Minnesota has no counties on the list. Nationwide, EPA intends to name 215 counties in 25 states as not meeting the new standard.

The EPA is seeking comments from the states before making its final designations. Being on the list makes it more difficult for counties to expand industry. The EPA said it intends to settle on its final soot nonattainment list by Dec. 18.

Counties included on that list would face pressure to cut levels of microscopic soot produced by power plants, diesel-burning trucks, cars and factories.

Those tiny particles lodge in people's lungs and blood vessels and are a major contributor to respiratory problems, especially in children, the elderly and people with existing illnesses.

State and local governments have three years to develop plans to reduce emissions and attain the standards, said EPA environmental scientist John Summerhays.

The list came as a surprise in Indiana, which had suggested that only five of its counties be cited. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said Tuesday that the agency hopes the EPA removes some of the Indiana counties from its final list.

"Monitoring data shows that Indiana's air quality continues to improve," spokesman Rob Elstro said in a statement, adding that his agency was "cautiously optimistic" the final list "will not include as many counties as today's preliminary designations."

His counterpart in Illinois disputed the designation for that state's Rock Island and Massac counties. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Maggie Carson said available air quality monitoring data, prevailing wind direction and the location and size of emission sources show the counties shouldn't be listed.

"We will be submitting additional analyses to USEPA to support our position," Carson said in a statement. "We are hopeful that USEPA will carefully examine this information and respond accordingly."

The EPA said in 1997 that cutting fine-particle pollution would save 15,000 people a year from premature deaths due to heart and lung diseases aggravated by soot-filled air.

Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the 19 Indiana counties are mainly the same counties that were on the EPA's fine particle nonattainment list under its previous standard.

But he said Knox and Tippecanoe counties -- in largely rural areas of southwestern and north-central Indiana -- are new to the updated list and that raises questions about what factors are behind those counties' inclusion on the EPA's proposed list.

"We'll want to look and see what the difference is and whether we should be more conservative and include even more counties," Maloney said. "There are very real and serious health effects from these particles."

The new standard is important because it takes into account growing concerns about short-term exposure to fine particles that can lodge deep in the lungs, said Janet McCabe, executive director of Improving Kids' Environment, an Indianapolis nonprofit working to reduce environmental threats to children's health.

"There's more and more health evidence suggesting that short-term exposure to fine particles can really have a health impact," she said. "Just standing on the sidewalk, breathing in exhaust for a few minutes can impact your health."

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