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Issues of the Environment: The challenges of managing ground-level ozone

Ozone formation
Environmental Protection Agency
Ozone formation


  • In May 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that southeast Michigan has successfully met all federal standards for ground-level ozone. The region has been a designated “non-attainment” area for ozone under the federal Clean Air Act since 2018.
  • May 1 is the start of Ozone Action season in Southeast Michigan. 2023 is the 30th year of the voluntary program that helps keep Southeast Michigan’s air clean. In 2022, there were five Ozone Action days. Ozone Action days are called when hot summer temperatures are expected to combine with pollution to create high amounts of ground-level ozone. Breathing high levels of ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly in children, the elderly, and people with asthma or other lung diseases. (Sources: *directly quoted* https://semcog.org/keep-the-air-clean)
  • In Washtenaw County, doctors are already reporting increased visits for breathing difficulties in 2023. Doctors admit it can be hard to tease out summer allergies from other triggers like ground-level ozone, but they have seen an uptick in calls during the ozone action days of the past week. (Source: https://www.wemu.org/wemu-news/2023-06-01/higher-ozone-levels-lead-to-more-calls-to-washtenaw-county-doctors)
  • The decision to remove the non-attainment status is controversial, and it has raised concerns about environmental equity. The Michigan Department of Great Lakes, Energy, and Environment requested that the EPA discount certain air quality data measured on June 24 and 25, 2022, at a monitor on East 7 Mile in Detroit. EGLE said the higher ozone levels measured at the site were due to western wildfire smoke and should not be considered in evaluating the region’s air quality. EPA rules allow for the exclusion of air quality samples influenced by “exceptional events” that reflect non-local causes not under the reasonable control of local and tribal governments. (Source: *portions quoted* https://planetdetroit.org/2023/05/epa-says-southeast-michigan-meets-federal-ozone-standards-advocates-say-thats-not-enough-for-vulnerable-populations/)
  • Ozone is especially a problem for those who suffer from asthma and other lung diseases, and ground-level ozone is a potent trigger for attacks. Environmental groups have spent decades working to hold industrial polluters accountable for air quality failures in urban areas. While ozone affects breathing in all areas, poor air quality due to industrial pollution disproportionately impacts black communities and lower income industrial areas. For example, the asthma mortality rate in Detroit in 2017-2019 was about three times the rate for Michigan “In reality, ozone pollution on the east side of Detroit is above the health-based air quality standard, and the asthma hospitalization rates in that community have worsened in recent years,” Leonard said. “There is no way to characterize this other than a gross environmental injustice.” (Source: *portions quoted* https://planetdetroit.org/2023/05/epa-says-southeast-michigan-meets-federal-ozone-standards-advocates-say-thats-not-enough-for-vulnerable-populations/)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. This week, we're going to explore the challenges to improving air quality and the role regulation plays in ensuring equitable outcomes. I'm David Fair, and in 2022, Southeast Michigan experienced five official ozone action days. We're just a few weeks removed from a week in which we saw nearly that many all in a row. As the climate continues to warm, that's going to be an ongoing issue, adding increased wildfires and other factors. And it begs the question: why did the federal Environmental Protection Agency change the status of Southeast Michigan as a non-attainment zone to declaring it is successfully meeting all federal standards for ground level ozone? Well, our guest today is going to help us determine if there's a good answer to that question. Nick Leonard is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. And how are you, Nick?

Nick Leonard, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center
Great Lakes Environmental Law Center
Nick Leonard, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

Nick Leonard: Great. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: Well, the region had been in a declared state of non-attainment since 2018. Did this change by the EPA surprise you?

Nick Leonard: It surprised us a bit. Based on the data that we saw from last year, from 2022, because as you've noted, essentially what that data showed was that the air quality in southeast Michigan and in particular the air quality of the East Seven Mile monitor on the east side of Detroit was above the ozone standards set by the EPA. That's meant to be protective of public health. Now, we thought that was particularly concerning because the monitor is very close to some very vulnerable populations. It's obviously a predominantly Black community. So, it was a serious environmental justice issue. Unfortunately, from our perspective, rather than requiring it to address those issues and lower ozone pollution, what the EPA basically did was say, "Well, some of those high ozone days from 2022 were the result of wildfires from northern Canada," and, therefore, the state basically shouldn't be responsible for addressing those issues, because that was partially due to things that were out of their control. And we just think that that's not the case. In particular, last year, we don't think that wildfire smoke had a meaningful impact on that particular monitor. And, in a more fundamental level, we don't think sort of our state government or the EPA should be in the business of avoiding taking actions to more stringently ozone pollution and make sure that essentially all communities have safe air to breathe, which they don't have right now.

David Fair: Well, you brought up the issue of environmental justice and equity. So, let's talk about that for a moment. As you've mentioned, we can demonstrably show air quality is better in Washtenaw County than it was in neighboring Wayne County. We can show that in both Washtenaw and Wayne Counties, air quality is generally worse in low-income areas and in the more Black populated areas. Does the EPA determination threaten to exacerbate those inequities?

Nick Leonard: We think it plainly does. As I mentioned, the asthma hospitalization rate has been very close to that east Seven Mile monitor on the east side of Detroit is very high--four times the state average. And I think even more troubling is asthma hospitalization rates in that community have grown worse in the last five years. So, you see asthma hospitalization rates in the community rising while the level is staying steady across the state. So, basically, what you have is a worsening asthma disparity on the east side of Detroit. Now, there's no question that even relatively small increases in ozone pollution can exacerbate asthma and it can trigger asthma and can cause people to have an asthma attack and cause people that go to the hospital. And so, what we have on the east side of Detroit now is a situation where basically the the air quality is above the level that the EPA has is deemed to be the safe level. At the same time, we have EGLE basically saying, "Yeah, that's true, but it's it's more or less not our problem." And we think that's sort of the crux of the environmental justice issue is you have sort of the standard that's meant to protect vulnerable people from things like, you know, particularly people with asthma. And you have worsening asthma disparity in that area with the predominantly Black community. And you basically have EPA and EGLE saying like, "Well, you know, this isn't our problem." And to us, that's a very significant environmental injustice.

David Fair: We're talking air quality with Nick Leonard on 89-1 WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Nick is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. And, Nick, maybe I've misunderstood, but when taking into consideration the environment and public health, I was under the understanding that both the EPA and EGLE were to do so through a lens of equity, and it doesn't seem as though that's the case.

Nick Leonard: It doesn't seem that's the case here, and the EPA certainly has expressed requirements under executive orders from both from the Biden administration. In fact, just a month or so ago, the Biden administration essentially reinvigorated its environmental justice executive order, really instructing federal agencies to make sure that they were considering issues of racial equity and their decision making in a very robust way. And, you know, that just simply doesn't seem to be the case here. And when we raised that issue or our comments to the EPA, you know, they basically said that, "Yes, there has asthma disparities are worsening in this area. Yes, this is a predominantly Black community. But, you know, we think that they'll be adequately protected." And, you know, what they really didn't say is how or why. They thought that, particularly in the face of them basically authorizing the state to basically avoid taking regulatory action to significantly reduce ozone levels. And, you know, sort of the same story, I think, with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, you know, their work in the area is not done. They have a responsibility to protect this. What they've admitted is an environmental justice. Clearly, what's not clear is what that looks like, you know? What we thought that work should look like as well. We have this specific law, the Clean Air Act, that's meant to handle issues like this. And you're basically trying to say that, you know, we shouldn't be forced to take action under that law. So, absent that, you know, they need to, I think, show some other sort of serious stuff that they're going to take to address, essentially, the air pollution in that community. And, quite frankly, they haven't really shared those those details yet, which is troubling.

David Fair: We've already had a number of ozone action days this year, and we can assume that there's going to be more throughout the course of the summer. You add in some of the fires that can degrade air quality. And as you peak forward, do you expect that there's going to be measurable degradation of air quality in 2023?

Nick Leonard: We do. And we essentially told the state and the EPA as much when they were proposing this action. What their response was was, "Well, we think air quality is going to improve. We think the downward trend is going to improve. We're basically not going to have ozone issues going forward." And we just don't think that's the case. You know, as you noted, we already we're just coming off a week of a series of five ozone action days. We've also seen our earliest ozone action day, I think we've ever seen in southeast Michigan. We have one in April this year, which is incredibly uncommon. And, you know, we're really not even into the peak of ozone season yet. Usually, we see a lot of our highest ozone concentrations in sort of mid-June to the end of July. And so, you know, we're nowhere near out of the woods yet. We expect we'll see a lot more ozone action days going forward. As you noted, wildfires are here, and if anything, they're growing more frequent and more intense. So, I think it begs the question of, well, should we be ignoring sort of the air quality impacts that those wildfires are having on distant places like Detroit, if it's going to basically mean that our environmental agencies that are meant to protect us from air quality issues are going to be excused from taking regulatory action to lower local air pollution, because I think it's very easy to imagine a world at this point where wildfires are a persistent problem, causing a wide variety of local air pollution issues in distant places, like southeast Michigan. And so, you consistently have air quality that's above the health standards set by the EPA. But you basically have state governments coming and saying, "Well, you know, we weren't responsible for those issues, so we shouldn't be responsible for fixing them."

David Fair: Well, we're going to have to adapt to climate change. It is here, and it is going to continue for generations to come. So, we're going to have to deal with it on those terms. So, air quality is going to be an issue moving forward and likely to get worse before it gets better. So, as you take a look at this particular situation and those that are to come, what is going to be the Law Center's next steps in advocating for more proactive behaviors from our regulatory agencies?

Nick Leonard: Well, we certainly want to hold EPA and EGLE accountable decisions to be made. And I think that can look like a lot of different ways. EGLE has said that, "Well, we want to make sure that our work isn't done in this community and that we're adequately protecting that." And we want to hold them to account for that. We're not sure what that work looks like right now, but, you know, it's a promise that they've made, and we intend to hold them to it. We're also looking into sort of legal challenges regarding EPA in the state's decision to exclude data from last summer regarding high ozone days and to basically designate the southeast Michigan area from non-attainment to attainment. So, I think we're looking at a wide variety of strategy.

David Fair: Well, Nick, thank you so much for the time and sharing the insights today. I appreciate it. And I look forward to our next conversation.

Nick Leonard: Of course. Thank you.

David Fair: That is Nick Leonard. He serves as executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. He's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on our conversation and topic, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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