8 Northeast states sue over pollution

Pennsylvania hasn't joined petition to EPA for tighter smog rules in Midwest

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Eight states in the Northeast -- but not Pennsylvania -- have petitioned the federal government to require upwind Midwestern states to reduce ozone-producing emissions that are damaging public health in the eastern half of the nation.

The eight Northeastern states, all members of the Ozone Transport Region, filed a petition Monday with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would require Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia to join the OTR and reduce their pollution-causing emissions, much of which comes from coal-fired power plants.

The petition by OTR member states Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont marks the first time states have tried to use the federal Clean Air Act provisions that allow the EPA to expand an air quality region if emissions from one state are causing air quality violations in downwind states.

The OTR petition cites decades of inaction by the upwind states during which OTR states have spent billions of dollars to reduce their own emissions of nitrogen oxides and other ozone-forming pollutants.

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Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said Eastern states have implemented significant ozone controls that have reduced emissions, but they aren't seeing the benefits because "ozone-causing pollutants transported from upwind states cross our borders and pose threats to public health and safety, our economic vitality and our overall quality of life."

Although southwestern Pennsylvania is one of several regions in the state that is in violation of federal ozone standards and the state sits on the geographic doorstep of Midwestern emitters that contribute a heavy dose of smog-causing pollutants, the Corbett administration didn't sign the petition.

Ozone Transport Region members New Jersey, Virginia, Maine and the District of Columbia also did not sign it.

Patrick Henderson, Gov. Tom Corbett's deputy chief of staff and energy executive, said Pennsylvania could still sign it but he could not give a deadline for when such a decision might be made. He said the petition has been talked about among OTR states for at least eight months, and while the first states signed on in May, others didn't do so until December.

"At the end of the day, the EPA can be expected to make a science-based decision about air quality, and whether the OTR footprint is properly constructed should be a part of that," Mr. Henderson said, adding that whether Pennsylvania signs the petition won't be a factor.

He said the state Department of Environmental Protection is continuing to assess the impacts of emissions from states to the west.

The EPA administrator has 18 months to act on the petition.

"It appears the Eastern states have reached their 'boiling point' over air pollution entering their boundaries," said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, an agency lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. "Most everyone's preference would be for the federal government to come up with a strategy for the Eastern United States that's comprehensive and cost-effective as can be, rather than this piecemeal approach by the states. But they feel they have no choice."

Ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog, forms in a chemical reaction when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from power plants, industries and vehicles are heated by the sun. Studies show higher ozone levels exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions and can lead to missed school days, increased numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalization, heart attacks and premature deaths.

The petitioners note 70 to 98 percent of the ozone is blown into Eastern states from upwind Midwestern states, and as a result millions of people living in the Northeast are exposed to unhealthy levels of smog.

The Ozone Transport Region was established in 1990 by Congress to address the regional nature of unhealthy air pollution emissions that affected public health. Over the years, air quality has improved, but ozone standards have been tightened to reflect better science and health data.

"This is a 20-plus-year-old issue about the inequity of midwestern states' air pollution moving into upwind states," said Dennis Schain, an OTR spokesman. "But it's an increased concern now because of the health issues and how it's placing states at an economic disadvantage when competing with states where they're burning dirtier, cheaper fuels."

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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