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Smog - 12/04


By Rich Trzupek
  If you drive a car and live in the greater Chicago metropolitan area, you are periodically required to have your tailpipe emissions checked in order to ensure that your vehicle meets emissions standards. When that happens, the state checks for levels of two very specific air pollutants, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and one general class of air pollutants, total hydrocarbons.
  These are not all of the air pollutants that your car emits. It emits hundreds of other chemicals, albeit in very low amounts. The reason the EPA only checks for three is because they know that they are indicators of proper engine and pollution control performance. There is no reason to sock the taxpayer with the cost and burden of measuring hundreds of air pollutants when a simple test for three tells the agency all it needs to know to ensure environmental protection.
  The same principles apply to regulation of industrial emissions, even though EPA data clearly shows that industrial emissions comprise an increasingly smaller fraction of the total mass of all air pollution emissions as recent decades have rolled on. Indeed, with the exception of sulfur dioxide, EPA figures show that industrial sources of air pollution are now minor contributors to emissions of criteria pollutants, with transportation sources, consumer products and activities and natural events like wildfires generating the vast majority of emissions.
  It for all of the above reasons that it should trouble us when someone attempts to demonize a particular source or a particular EPA decision without any reasonable attempt to contextualize the source or the decision. Two weeks ago the Daily Herald ran a piece penned by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase in its Nov. 24 edition under the provocative headline “Rollback of EPA oversight in the Midwest favors polluters.” That heavily-slanted tale should concern anyone who understands the difference of choosing a position based on the facts and choosing facts based on a position.
  One cannot help but wonder why Chase’s musings were published in a way that suggested they were factual reporting of hard news, when his piece, in fact, largely expressed the opinions of someone whom – in this environmental professional’s view – has only a minimal understanding of the way that environmental regulation works and the relative importance of sources that impact that environment.
  This starts with Chase’s implication that the Obama-era EPA was justified in ordering that the stacks from a Veolia North America waste incinerator located in Sauget, Illinois should be “…continuously monitored for arsenic, lead, mercury and other harmful metals…” and that the Trump-era EPA was irresponsible in reversing that decision. Chase goes on to tug at the reader’s heartstrings, citing a 78 year old grandmother’s assertion that emissions from the incinerator are responsible for health problems of her three great-grandchildren.
  The first claim is just plain silly. The EPA has published hundreds of regulation and approved tens of thousands of permits that deal with emissions of “harmful metals.” EPA knows, industry knows and Brett Chase ought to know that with few exceptions metal emissions into the environment take the form of particulate (solid) matter. So, rather than requiring sources to monitor for every single metal they use measurement of total particulate matter as a reasonable and effective surrogate for the myriad of metal emissions that may be emitted. This is exactly analogous to the way EPA doesn’t test your car for every potentially toxic compound under the sun, but rather uses three indicator compounds to ensure your car’s combustion and pollution control systems are working as designed.
  As to our 78 year-old grandmother, let’s be fair to her. I stand in the shadow on no one in my admiration of 78 year-old grandmothers, but I do not believe there are many such grandmothers who are air quality experts, who understand the nuances of atmospheric dispersion, who understand who small a source Veolia’s incinerator is in the scheme of things or who are aware of the thousands of sources that impact our air quality and the millions of variables that influence our health and that of our progeny.
  Citing a 78 year-old grandmother living in a heavily industrialized, urbanized area as one’s source of air quality information is insulting to readers. Worse, doing so takes repugnant advantage of a senior citizen who clearly does not know, nor should be expected to know, the many facets central to the cause she is being used to advance.
  Email: richtrzupek@gmail.com

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