MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON, Wis. – For years, Chicago, Northwest Indiana and parts south and north have been sending their pollution to Wisconsin, particularly southeast Wisconsin. 

The Badger State and its economy have long had to pay for somebody else’s smog, through draconian U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards that have unfairly put clean Wisconsin on the dirty air list. 

Wisconsin for decades has argued that it is not the main cause of the problem. Science backs that up. 

Last week, the Trump administration’s EPA reversed course and took much of southeast Wisconsin off the non-attainment list of counties not meeting more stringent ozone standards adopted during the Obama administration. 

Racine County, too, was removed from the list, sending the left and many in the mainstream media into environmental paroxysms. 

“A Big factory gets to pollute, and you get to wheeze,” proclaimed a Chicago Sun-Times editorial decrying the EPA’s decision to “exempt” Racine County and thereby the massive Foxconn economic development project from stricter clean air standards.

The editorial took special aim at EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, a Trump administration head that the newspaper views as a “fossil fuel fat cat” defender. 

The Chicago Tribune went after Pruitt, too, in a news story.

“EPA chief Pruitt overrules staff, gives Wisconsin’s Walker, Foxconn big break on smog,” screamed the headline of a Tribune article last week. 

The piece, however, was written by the same reporter who less than a year earlier penned a story about Wisconsin being held captive by invading smog from its neighbors to the south and east. 

In the Aug. 4 story, “Smog follows Chicagoans on vacation to Wisconsin, Michigan,” reporter Michael Hawthorne notes an extensive federal research project that is looking at why Lake Michigan shoreline communities with “relatively little traffic and few, if any, big polluters” have higher ozone levels.

Hawthorne concedes “some of the smog in Chicago comes from St. Louis, and Milwaukee’s problems can be blamed in part on Chicago and other upwind cities.”

Now, in an audacious legal move, highly partisan Democrat Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan plans to sue the EPA for daring to remove portions of southeast Wisconsin from the stricter air quality regs. 

“Despite its name, the Environmental Protection Agency now operates with total disregard for the quality of our air and water, and in this case, the U.S. EPA is putting the company’s profit ahead of our natural resources and the public’s health,” Madigan wrote in a press release. “I will file a lawsuit to protect the environment and people from the consequences of this unsupported decision.”

Wisconsinites may rightly ask where Ms. Madigan has been all these years as Chicago, Rockford and other Illinois manufacturing centers spewed their smog on the Badger State’s verdant valleys and small towns.  

Lucas Vebber, legal counsel and director of Environmental and Energy Policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said the science is pretty well established. 

“Wisconsin for decades has been arguing that the ozone we have here in Wisconsin is not the result of sources in Wisconsin but, rather, it’s coming into Wisconsin from other sources in other states, and even countries,” Vebber said. 

In 2016, Gov. Scott Walker submitted a plan to the federal government asking that all of Wisconsin be deemed as in attainment of the Obama-era ozone standards. That regulation lowered the acceptable amount of ambient ozone in the air from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb.  

As Hawthorne noted last year, NASA satellite data “vividly show improvements in air quality during the past decade,” thanks in large part to a sharp drop in nitrogen oxide, a core precursor of smog. Wisconsin’s ozone levels have greatly improved over the period, but eastern portions of the state remain subject to invasive pollutants from other states and countries. 

“Local officials in Wisconsin and Michigan hope the new research helps resolve long-running battles with the EPA and frees their communities from a national list of communities with dirty air,” according to the Tribune story. 

Areas deemed to be in non-attainment face hefty federal fees and restrictions. The stiffer regulations would indeed hinder Racine County’s massive Foxconn development, a project pegged to create tens of thousands of direct and ancillary jobs. The regs also would hurt any number of manufacturers in southeast Wisconsin, while delivering questionable benefit to air quality. 

“What the EPA said was, ‘Hey, we recognize that this is not a problem that these Wisconsin inland sources are causing so when we designate an area as non-attainment we are going to stick to the areas that actually have heightened ozone,” Vebber told MacIver News Service recently on the Dan Conry Show, on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA. “And that’s a win for everyone who is outside of this area who will not be subject to these draconian federal regulations, which would be incredibly expensive and make it very difficult to grow or expand a facility here.” 

The EPA’s decision last week designates the northeast corner of Milwaukee, the Ozaukee County shoreline, as well as part of Sheboygan County as not within the air quality standards. A portion of Kenosha County is included. 

But to the anti-business, environmental crowd, the EPA decision is all about Foxconn. Vebber asserts politics is driving a liberal misinformation campaign aimed at taking out Walker at the polls in November.

“Unfortunately what we’ve seen is those anti-business activists, those folks simply trying to make Foxconn a political issue … They are going on the attack on what they think is a political issue they can sell folks on and we’ve seen basically just wholesale ignoring of the truth…” Vebber said. 

Racine County recorded average ozone levels of 74 parts per billion from 2015 through 2017, according to Milwaukee’s BizTimes. That’s within the previous air quality limits but above the Obama administration’s stricter – and, critics say, unnecessary – 70 ppb standard. Non-attainment would require Foxconn to install costlier pollution control equipment. 

Foxconn has been granted four air permits, allowing the technology manufacturer to emit no more than 172 tons of nitrogen oxide per year when the massive plant is fully operational, according to the state Department of Natural Resources’ “Analysis and Preliminary Determination” document that’s part of the permit file. 

While Vebber acknowledges that the tonnage is a “big number,” he said the emissions would pale in comparison to the 2,200-plus tons produced by the We Energies’ coal-fired power plant in Pleasant Prairie, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. As that plant closes down this year, Vebber said Southeast Wisconsin will see annual net decreases of more than 2,000 tons of nitrogen oxygen, meaning a net decrease of smog.

In reporting last year on the plant’s planned closure, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that shutting down the facility “means less air pollution and a smaller carbon footprint for the state’s largest utility holding company and should help southeastern Wisconsin address longstanding ozone air emission problems.” 

Now, many of these same news outlets are pushing a narrative that the fix is in, that the EPA’s change on southeast Wisconsin air quality standards is about giving a pass to a titan tech company and a “once-in-a-generation” development deal at the expense of Wisconsinites’ health. They have conveniently omitted the nagging facts of other people’s smog and improving air quality at source points.

Look no further than Sheboygan, a city that was told it violated the federal smog standard 25 days between 2013 and 2015 – more than any other city in the Midwest, according to the Chicago Tribune. But monitoring data shows what Sheboygan knows: pollution pushing up Lake Michigan from Chicago and elsewhere is the real culprit.

“We’ve done our part, but it’s unfair to make our employers jump through hoops when our neighbors in surrounding counties don’t have to do a thing,” Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen told the Tribune last year. “Even if we shut down every industry we’ve got, we would still have these (smog) problems.” 

M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.