Unlikely coalition advocates reducing Twin Cities’ ozone

by Seth Woerhle

An unlikely pairing of environmental groups, businesses and government has formed an alliance to reduce ozone in the Twin Cities and avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

With a unanimous vote Wednesday afternoon, the Hennepin County Board joined Clean Air Minnesota, an organization which hopes to curb ozone-producing emissions through voluntary programs to evade costly Environmental Protection Agency sanctions. The group hopes to cooperate with Ramsey County and other Minnesota county governments.

The Twin Cities had two ozone alerts last summer and four during the summer of 2001, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Previously, there hadn’t been an alert in 20 years.

Many experts think the Twin Cities could be designated as a “nonattainment” area by the EPA in three to four years if no action is taken, depending on development rates and weather conditions.

A nonattainment designation can mean sanctions such as mandatory vehicle-emission testing, limits on industrial expansion and even the withholding of federal funding for highway construction, according to Doug Aburano, an environmental engineer with the EPA’s office in Chicago.

“We’re kind of unique in that, while there are similar voluntary programs around the country, they’re all being done in areas that are already in nonattainment by the federal Clean Air Act,” said Mike Robertson, co-chairman of Clean Air Minnesota and an environmental policy consultant with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Ground-level ozone is produced through a chemical reaction in the air when nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds interact with sunlight.

A preliminary study of Twin Cities ozone air quality commissioned by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, also released Wednesday, suggested the Twin Cities’ ozone would be best controlled by lowering volatile organic compounds as opposed to nitrous oxides.

The study also found the majority of high ozone days were caused by the combined effects of locally generated ozone and ozone blown in from large cities to the south.

In the upper atmosphere, ozone blocks cancer-causing ultraviolet light, but it can cause health problems if it is inhaled by humans.

“Ozone has a number of effects on breathing, especially for children and the elderly,” said Ian Greaves, associate dean in the University’s School of Public Health. “In people who are asthmatic it can trigger asthma attacks. In young children, high ozone is associated with higher risk of respiratory infections.”

Greaves added that despite the University’s close proximity to two large freeways, the dispersing nature of ozone formation means the campus would have the same ozone levels as anywhere else in the city.

Cars and trucks are the largest emitters of ozone ingredients, but two-cycle lawn mowers, power-plants and items such as paint and solvents are also sources.

Clean Air Minnesota programs might include voluntary incentives like lawn mower exchanges -turning in a gas-powered mower for an electric or manual one – and the use of vapor recovery during the filling of service station gas tanks to prevent chemicals from escaping into the atmosphere.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce conducted a study of Milwaukee in 1998 when it was designated a nonattainment area. That designation cost the city $189 million to $266 million dollars a year, according to Robertson.

Mark Ten Eyck, advocacy director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the environmental group could accomplish more in certain areas by partnering with business and government than it could on its own.

“From our perspective, there are some things that can be accomplished through Clean Air Minnesota that just make a lot of sense,” Ten Eyck said. “We think that working with business and government on answers to ozone problems is the old ‘win-win’ solution for us.”

Seth Woehrle welcomes comments at [email protected]