(Note: This commentary originally appeared as an Op-Ed in The Grand Rapids Press on March 29, 2008.)

Western Michigan once again faces the prospect of penalties if its air quality does not improve. On March 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had revised the standard for ozone (commonly referred to as smog) from 80 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion. States have until 2013 to implement legally enforceable plans to meet the new standard. This challenge might not be entirely hopeless if western Michigan could control its own air quality, but the truth is, it cannot. The air quality in western Michigan is largely the product of smog blowing across Lake Michigan from Chicago, Ill. and Gary, Ind.

High ozone levels are blamed for aggravating respiratory problems or even causing premature death, particularly for people with respiratory problems. Smog is formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides mix in the air in the presence of sunlight. Exhaust from cars and smokestacks from factories and power plants are common sources of VOC and NOx emissions that form smog.

The setting of health-based standards for ozone remains controversial. There is not a "bright line" at which health effects due to exposure from ozone disappear. The lower the amount of ozone, the lower the health risk — but the greater the cost to the public in inconvenience from compliance strategies, such as inspection of automotive tailpipe emissions, and strict air quality controls that make industrial activities more costly or even noncompetitive.

The EPA estimates the annual cost of compliance nationwide to be between $7.6 billion and $8.5 billion and the annual benefits to be between $2 billion to $19 billion. Predictably, environmental groups claim that the EPA should set an even more restrictive standard, while business groups argue there was no need to lower the existing standard.

Kent, Ottawa, Allegan and Benzie are among the Michigan counties that will be out of compliance under the new standard. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality acknowledges that even when additional proposed controls are fully implemented, Allegan County will remain out of compliance. The geographic and meteorological conditions in western Michigan combine to create a "perfect storm" for imported smog from the Chicago area. Hot, still days in the summer are the perfect incubator for smog that is transported by the prevailing southwesterly winds traveling across Lake Michigan and inflicting western Michigan counties with high smog days. This transport phenomenon explains why the northern county of Benzie, with relatively few smokestacks or cars, records some of the highest ozone readings in west Michigan.

Past air modeling indicates that unless Chicago cleans up its air it is impossible for western Michigan counties to comply no matter how drastic the actions taken to reduce emissions. Closing factories and preventing people from driving cars on high ozone days will not compensate for the smog being imported from Chicago.

To compound the problem, the penalties for noncompliance will prove devastating to Michigan. A noncompliant county becomes an unattractive place to expand or locate a business since new allowances for emissions must correspond with a decrease in emissions from somewhere else in the county. Additionally, even if an allowance is granted, the new business is forced to use the most stringent air quality controls, which are usually more costly than those used by their competitors in compliant counties. If the state cannot demonstrate to the EPA that it will eventually comply with the new standard, it faces the loss of federal highway funds.

It is imperative that the state file a petition with EPA to exempt western Michigan counties from the new ozone control requirements. EPA air officials should understand the unique problems faced by western Michigan in meeting the new ozone standards. If relief is not granted by the EPA, the western Michigan congressional delegation and our governor need to get actively involved. Michigan faces enough of its own problems — we should not be penalized for someone else’s.

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Russ Harding is director of the property rights network for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.