St. Paul, Minn. — For the past two summers, unsafe levels of ground level ozone in the Twin Cities have triggered periodic health alerts. Ground level ozone and "smog" are formed when pollutants from cars, trucks, power plants, and other sources interact with sunlight.
The state's businesses worry that if the problem worsens, the federal government will step in. A Minnesota Chamber of Commerce study found that mandatory compliance with federal air quality standards could cost the state's citizens and businesses some $200 million each year.
Now businesses have launched what Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty calls a "proactive" plan.
"We're trying to take measures to mitigate and prevent before the problem hits the crisis level. And under the leadership of these stakeholder groups we hope to make progress. But it's only going to work if folks roll up their sleeves and participate and take this seriously," Pawlenty said Tuesday.
Around half the pollutants that lead to the ozone that causes summer smog alerts come from the tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and other "mobile sources" that ply the state's highways every day.
But the state's biggest single emmitters of ozone-causing pollutants are powerplants and other large businesses. Xcel Energy, 3M, the oil refiner Flint Hills Resources, Minnesota Power, Anderson Corporation, and other top emitters have lined up behind new clean air program. The program relies on voluntary, rather than mandatory controls.
Federal EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman told a crowd of more than 200, mostly business representatives, the Clean Air Minnesota effort will be a model for the nation.
"I don't believe there is anyone here who has been a part of the original partnership in pulling together this effort who would tell you any of their organizations could have done it alone," Whitman said. "And that's what President Bush and I believe so strongly. We believe in partnerships as the best way to achieve the next generation environmental success."
Whitman is stepping down from the EPA at the end of the month amid criticicm that the Bush Administration is dismantleing many of the nation's environmental laws.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, she said the regulations that spurred the Clean Air Minnesota effort will remain in place.
"Those standards are going to be there and we're going to expect regions to meet those standards, and in fact the court has upheld everytime there's been an action the need to go forward and meet those goals and timelines. All we're saying is there are probably some smarter ways to reach those than just waiting for the pollution to occur and then having the federal government come in afterwards and slap sanctions on," Whitman said.
Along with voluntary actions by business, the plan also relies on a host of smaller steps by small businesses and citizens. For example, printers and metal shops are encouraged to reduce vapor fumes from solvents. Natural landscaping, such as prairie plantings, can reduce lawnmower use.
Citizens are also urged to use carpools or mass transit.
Lea Shuster, executive director of the group Transit for Livable Communities, says she's pleased business leaders seem to be waking up to the possible consequences if Minnesota's air quality continues to slide. But she says the root of the problem is ever-growing emissions by motorists and the state legislature failed to address that in the last legislative session.
"Our transit system was actually cut by over $40 millions, 11 percent, and at the same time there was an influx of money through bonding into building highways. If the only way the transportation system is going to grow is by more roads, then we're certainly going to see a step increase in the kind of air pollution this group is concerned about," Shuster said.
If air quality in the Twin Cities does slip, the region could face federal planning requirements to make its transportation system meet air quailty standards. Businesses could see mandatory emissions caps, and new, high emitting industries could be prohibited.