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Great Lakes Article:

Quality of air is worst since '88

Ozone levels have exceeded federal standards 25 days, compared with 11 in '01.


Indianapolis Star

September 11, 2002

Richard Skok says he doesn't need official warnings to know when the air is unhealthy. He can feel it in his lungs.

"I get more tired and notice it's not as easy to breathe," said Skok, an avid golfer who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"It was worse this summer, especially when there wasn't any wind to blow the pollution away," he said.

In fact, air quality in the Indianapolis area this year has been the worst in more than a decade, as an unusually long string of hot, sunny days combined with pollution from cars, factories and other sources to produce the unhealthy brew, city officials said.

The area exceeded the stricter federal ozone standard 25 days through Tuesday, compared with 11 days all of last year.

While that number is not unheard of -- 23 days exceeded the standard in 1998 -- the ozone levels were higher this year, said Rick Martin, planning manager for the Department of Public Works' office of environmental services.

Standards tightened in 1997 require ozone levels to average less than 0.08 parts per million over an eight-hour period.

On June 21, the city measured its highest ozone level ever -- 0.142 parts per million for one hour, well above the old federal limit of 0.120 ppm for one hour and the highest reading since the hot, dry summer of 1988, Martin said.

Although the statistics don't necessarily mean more toxins are being emitted, they underscore the need to reduce air pollution, officials said.

The nine-county Indianapolis metropolitan area does not meet the updated federal ozone standards -- and only recently came into compliance with the old standards.

And unless local officials devise a plan to reduce pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 could officially designate the Indianapolis area, and parts of northwest and southern Indiana, as nonattainment zones, said Patricia Morris, an EPA environmental scientist who works on Indiana ozone issues. That would automatically require any new emission source, such as a manufacturing plant, to obtain pollution "offsets," such as trading emissions reductions with another company, she said.

Economic development officials say that could hurt efforts to attract new businesses and jobs.

"It's very important to resolve this," said Suzanne Vertesch, senior vice president of Indy Partnership, a regional economic development corporation. "If we have a manufacturing client looking at locating in this region, and we have issues with air quality . . . it's a strike against us."

Indianapolis officials hope to avoid federal intervention by adopting a regional pollution-reduction plan, said Jodi Perras, deputy director of policy and planning for the city Department of Public Works.

By the end of this year, officials must send the EPA a letter saying they want to participate in a federal program that would allow communities to sign a compact outlining how they will comply with the air rules by 2007, which could help them avoid a nonattainment designation.

Perras said she has spoken informally with municipal, economic development, industry and environment officials about joining the program. Now they must decide if they want to participate -- and how to clean the air.

"We've done the easy ones, like Knozone Action Days, but the harder decisions are ahead of us," Perras said. "But we need to decide as a local region, not just Indianapolis."

The list of possibilities is long -- and not all would be popular.

The region could expand vehicle emissions testing, now required only in Lake, Porter, Clark and Floyd counties. It could require vapor controls at gas stations, improve public transportation, promote ride-sharing and encourage businesses to allow more employees to work from home, Perras said.

John Smith of the American Lung Association of Indiana would like such a plan to require that drive-through windows at banks and restaurants be closed during Knozone Action Days.

Morris said requiring reformulated gasoline, and tightening regulations on the level of volatile organic compounds allowed in paints and solvents, might also help.

Officials also could require gas cans that don't allow vapors to escape, and encourage the use of electric lawn mowers.

Already, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is requiring some industries -- including coal-burning power plants -- to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions significantly by May 31, 2004, said Janet McCabe, assistant commissioner of IDEM's office of air quality.

John Hagen, executive director of the Corporation for Economic Development in Madison County, believes municipalities will cooperate.

"We're becoming more cognizant of the fact that this is a regional issue that affects us all," he said. "Now the general population needs to become more aware of the whole question.

"But with some foresight here, we may be able to keep ourselves from having to do things that are drastic. And we don't want to be in a situation that environmental concerns hamper our ability to sustain our economy."

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