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In the course of a day, we each breathe over 22,000 times, day in and day out, mostly without thinking about it and mostly without knowing whether that air is healthy for us or plants and animals.
"The Air Management Program's goal is to maintain Wisconsin's outdoor air quality so that it adequately protects public health and prevents harm to the environment," says Lloyd Eagan, DNR's air program bureau director.
The past 10 years made us more aware of air toxics in town, the long distances pollutants travel and honed our ability to share pollutant monitoring results. Both industries and cars are cleaner today and Eagan says she is proud that the state is leading the way in several air quality protection initiatives.
Wisconsin is working aggressively to revise and improve air quality regulations for new and existing businesses that will ultimately save time, money and work for DNR staff and businesses. Permit streamlining will help DNR staff become more efficient in issuing air permits without compromising environmental quality.
Rules regarding atmospheric mercury emissions and hazardous air pollutants were revised in 2003 and commit Wisconsin utilities to reduce their mercury pollution by 75 percent by 2015.
"Now it is important for us to advocate for stronger federal mercury rules," Eagan contends.
Mercury is particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women. Mercury is emitted into the air when fossil fuels are burned in power plants and other large industrial sources. Through precipitation, it ends up in lakes, rivers and streams and is converted to a more toxic form called methylmercury. Because it persists in the environment, mercury enters the food chain, bioaccumulates in fish and is eventually consumed by people and animals.
The Voluntary Emissions Reduction Registry provides an opportunity for companies, governments and individuals to register reductions in greenhouse gases and air pollutant emissions. These voluntary reductions may offset future regulation and protect baseline emissions.
"We are making it more efficient for businesses to get technical help to meet clean air standards rather than force penalties after pollution occurs," Eagan says.
Wisconsin's Partners for Clean Air (WPCA) is a coalition of over 260 businesses, community organizations, schools and government agencies committed to voluntarily improving air quality. WPCA formed in 1996 after six southeastern Wisconsin counties were shown to have one of the most severe ground-level ozone problems in the United States. WPCA educates businesses and residents on how to improve air quality and reduce harmful air emissions by changing their daily habits.
Cleaner Air Faster is a voluntary program involving public and private partners in Dane, Fond du Lac, Winnebago, Brown and Jefferson counties, seeking short and long-term reductions in emissions causing ground-level ozone and fine particulates. For instance, on Clean Air Action Days in Dane County, the City of Madison offers free bus rides.
The State of Wisconsin is a full partner in this process. Governor Jim Doyle's Executive Order 56 calls for voluntary reductions in emissions from state agencies in 20 southern and eastern counties on Clean Air Action Days to protect air quality.
Other partnerships make people aware of air pollution through medical providers, schools and youth groups. At the Sixteenth Street Health Center in Milwaukee, health educators teach about asthma and other air-related illness.
"Try breathing solely through a small cocktail straw to find out what asthma feels like," says Sara Burr, DNR's Air Quality Educator. "We join with partners in the health professions to get our message out: Protecting air quality means protecting the health of our children."
"Where's the Air? It's Everywhere!," "Easy Breathers" and "Air Defenders" are three successful programs to carry clean air messages to youngsters.
Using "Where's the Air," students, ages 10 and up can boot up and learn about air chemistry and how people affect air quality by the choices they make.
Easy Breathers links car use and air quality for high school students.
"Air Defenders" links air quality and respiratory health for children, ages 8 to 11 and is the outcome of DNR's partnership with the Wisconsin Environmental Health Association. The multi-media training kit "deputizes" children for their mission: to help clean the air and protect community health.
"Teaching about air quality is challenging because air is 'invisible,'" Burr says. "So we have invented wonderful visual and audio aids to help children and adults discover what air pollution is, how it is formed and easy ways each of us can do our part to protect air quality. Our elementary and high school packets on air quality help students in math, language arts and environmental education."
We continue to maintain an intensive program to monitor for ozone as the nation moves to an eight-hour standard.
EPA identified 10 counties in Wisconsin – Door, Kenosha, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Sheboygan, Washington and Waukesha – that can't routinely meet ozone standards.
As a result of control programs, five of these counties – Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Walworth – restored healthier quality air. Air quality in the Milwaukee area also dramatically improved. Control strategies include reformulated gas, a motor vehicle inspection and maintenance program, gas pumps that trap vapors, industrial process controls and voluntary measures.
Within the nonattainment areas, any new business that will emit air pollutants or expansions of existing operations will face additional requirements. For instance a new source emitting 100 tons/year of VOC in a nonattainment county will have to find someone else to reduce VOC emissions by at least 100 tons/year.
In addition to requirements for new sources, the state's air quality plan will establish a cap on emissions from highway vehicles. EPA has set in place national control programs for highway vehicles, off-road engines, some industrial sources and household products.
Tighter car emission controls started with model year 2004 vehicles and low sulfur gasoline went on sale nationwide on January 1, 2004. New vehicle limitations begin in 2007 for heavy-duty highway diesel trucks and low sulfur diesel fuel will be sold nationally in 2006.
Monitoring efforts are finding their way online as we move toward continuous, real-time monitoring where results are posted on the Internet.
"Having information available on the web is a tremendous service to parents of kids who have asthma," Eagan says. "We have a hazecam network that people can access online and while we've always done a good job of monitoring, now we are doing a better job of getting that information to the public in forms they can judge for themselves. Real-time and continuous monitoring is exciting."
Wisconsin's air monitoring network focuses on providing timely data to the public for EPA's list of the most serious health-related air pollutants (ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead). Measurements of the ambient air quality data for these pollutants are available from the Wisconsin DNR's Air Emission Inventory Information and EPA's AIRNow .
The primary goal of the DNR's air monitoring program is to increase public access to air monitoring data and to strengthen its network of continuous monitoring sites.
"Continuous monitoring enables us to provide timely public notice of when air pollution concentrations rise," says Eileen Pierce, DNR's air monitoring section chief. "Based on such notice, those who are sensitive to air pollution may adjust their daily activities to minimize adverse impacts to their health."
The state's ambient air quality monitoring network provides the public with timely access to air quality information, supports planning for air quality improvements, and establishes a mechanism for program accountability. Measurements of air quality are essentially a measure of the success of our air program efforts. Do our programs and regulations result in cleaner, healthier air? Is the program working?
"The answer lies in our air monitoring data," Pierce says. "In addition, the data we collect is useful to scientists and researchers working on studies of public health and ecosystem assessments."
Operating within funding constraints, the state's air program continues to consolidate sites, increase automation, eliminate redundancies, upgrade to higher sensitivity monitors for reactive nitrogen and carbon monoxide, and enhance the air toxics monitoring network.
"We continue to work toward expansion of network coverage in Wisconsin through partnerships with industry, Native American tribes, and other entities," Pierce says.
Annual network review provides opportunity for public input into decisions about what pollutants to monitor where.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.