Wisconsin Wants Break from Trump Administration on Ozone Rules in Advance of Foxconn Development
By Lee Bergquist
Despite evidence that southeast Wisconsin is violating new and tougher emissions standards for smog, state officials are asking the Trump administration to set aside a recent federal finding and conclude the state is complying with the law.
Falling short of that, the state Department of Natural Resources is recommending federal officials carve out narrow strips of land of a few miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline as violating the new standard for ozone pollution and declare the rest of the state in compliance.
The state’s request to the U.S. Environmental Protection would weaken the impact of stricter regulations on factories and other large sources of air pollution — including Racine County where Foxconn Technology Group is planning to build a giant manufacturing campus.
To justify their request, DNR officials are arguing that meteorological and air emissions data show that Illinois and Indiana are primarily responsible for pollution that blows north along the lake and creates smog.
But environmental groups say the claim ignores Wisconsin’s own contribution of ozone pollution.
If the Trump administration sides with Gov. Scott Walker and other state officials, it could benefit Foxconn and comes after Wisconsin promised environmental exemptions for the company as part of a state and local financial incentive package totaling $4 billion.
Regardless of the outcome, motorists in southeastern Wisconsin will still be required to buy reformulated gasoline, said Gail Good, director of air management for the DNR. Reformulated gas, which is more expensive, has been sold in the Milwaukee area since 1995 and is a tool regulators use to reduce smog.
Ozone is a summer pollutant and is created when heat and light interact with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The pollutants come from sources such as factories, power plants and emissions from cars and trucks.
Depending on how the EPA responds, the outcome could have far-reaching health and economic impacts for counties stretching from Kenosha to Door. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is evaluating Wisconsin’s proposal.
Higher levels of ground-level ozone can lead to reduced lung function for people working and exercising outdoors or those with respiratory problems like asthma. The stricter regulations would help to lower ozone levels in the region and were advanced after a five-year scientific review.
If the EPA declares all or parts of nine Wisconsin counties as violating the stricter ozone standard, factories could face higher costs, especially new or expanding plants that would be required to purchase top-of-the-line pollution controls regardless of cost and make other changes to their operations.
“EPA’s intended designations threaten Wisconsin’s economic engine and could result in severe and unnecessary economic consequences,” DNR Secretary Daniel L. Meyer said in a letter to the EPA on Feb. 28.
The ozone rules have taken on a political dynamic because of the potential impact on Foxconn and future development near the plant and because the rules were advanced in 2015 under the Obama administration.
Wisconsin and other like-minded states filed a lawsuit against the rules in 2016, arguing the stiffer ozone limits failed to take pollution into account that was outside a state’s control.
Also, an EPA spokeswoman said Regional Administrator Cathy Stepp recently recused herself in the Wisconsin request. Stepp had advocated against the Obama rules as Wisconsin DNR secretary.
President Donald Trump attended the announcement in Washington, D.C., that Foxconn had chosen Wisconsin for its plant.
Foxconn is building a $10 billion plant to produce liquid crystal display panels. The plant could employ as many as 13,000 people.
In a statement, Foxconn said it is monitoring the situation. Foxconn said it supports the DNR’s recommendation, adding that it is “grounded in science, and supports Wisconsin’s economic goals while effectively meeting air quality requirements.