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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Trash burning in barrels can cause wildfires and emissions with a mix of pollutants. © Jonathan Stone

August 2007

Air apparent

Forecasting air issues.

Natasha Kassulke

Mercury reductions
Other contaminants
Educating about options | Future resources

Recent scientific evidence suggests efforts 30 years ago are not enough to protect public health and the environment, and the acid rain story is far from over.


A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," emphasizes that global warming is already having worldwide effects and predicts regional impacts if temperatures continue to rise.

According to IPCC findings, for each degree of global warming, the earth will experience more wildfires, coral bleaching, flooding and storm damage. A rise of more than five degrees Fahrenheit in average temperatures would result in water shortages for up to 3.2 billion people, 20 percent of the global population would be directly affected by flooding, and three to eight times more heat waves would occur in some cities.

Key findings of a Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group Foundation report, "An Unfamiliar State, How Global Warming Could Change Natural Wisconsin," concluded:

  • The Great Lakes would likely be smaller, shallower and less able to sustain healthy populations of aquatic life.

  • Wisconsin habitats of several key tree species – balsam fir, paper birch, white spruce, jack pine and red pine – would likely be reduced.

  • Popular winter pastimes such as ice fishing and snowmobiling would have much shorter seasons.

  • Hunting and fishing opportunities might change as populations of several game birds shift northward and coldwater fish, such as brook and brown trout, lose habitat.

  • Drought and heat stress would reduce cattle vigor and dairy herd milk production.

"Climate change impacts are already occurring in Wisconsin," says Dr. John Magnuson, UW Madison Emeritus Professor of Zoology and Limnology. Reduced ice cover on lakes is a visible signal of warming especially during the last 35 years. Increases in runoff and associated algal growth and shoreland flooding from extreme rain events over the last hundred years are expected to continue increasing through this century.

There is broad scientific consensus that carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States must be reduced at least 15 to 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. While Congress considers action, some states have already established emission reduction plans. California enacted the nation's first statewide cap on global warming pollution. Wisconsin has joined over 30 states to form a national registry to track greenhouse gas emissions. Some states are also turning to alternative biofuels produced from ethanol, switchgrass and woody biomass.

The state's "bioeconomy" includes a Declaration of Energy Independence that sets three broad goals:

  • To generate 25 percent of our electricity and 25 percent of our transportation fuel from renewable fuels by 2025.

  • To capture 10 percent of the market share to produce renewable energy sources.

  • To become a national leader in research that makes alternative energies more available and affordable.

Mercury reductions

"Controlling mercury emissions is vital in protecting Wisconsin's environment and public health," says Al Shea, DNR Air and Waste Division administrator.

Citizen interest in controlling mercury remains high. The federal government adopted mercury rules for electric utilities that warrant changes to Wisconsin's existing rules. The nature of those changes remains controversial. The federal rules would reduce mercury about 70 percent by 2018 – not really more stringent than Wisconsin's existing mercury rule. Industrial and electric utility groups strongly favor adopting federal rules without change. "I believe that they have a legal and political commitment for that," says Kevin Kessler, DNR air management bureau director.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, petitioned the Department of Natural Resources earlier this year to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2012 and to reject the federal "cap and trade" program that would allow electric utilities to buy credits from other utilities instead of making the reductions at their own plants.

Stay tuned. The economic, political, environmental and public health stakes regarding Wisconsin's mercury rules are high. Mercury emissions remain an issue needing the same type of scientific and political consensus that was reached on acid rain in the 1980s.

Other contaminants

Unfortunately, mercury is just one air contaminant challenge facing the state. The EPA adopted a new health-based standard last year for fine particulate matter, which several of our most populous counties don't currently meet. Official designations of these non-attainment areas and new regulations to address particulate matter are forthcoming.

Wisconsin and our neighboring states have made great strides on ozone during the past two decades. In fact, in June 2007, Wisconsin asked the EPA to designate eight counties as having reached attainment status for ozone. At the same time, new studies have found that ozone presents a greater health hazard than was previously recognized. Under court order, the EPA will issue more stringent ozone standards that will likely put some of our counties back in non-attainment and require more emissions controls.

The federal Clean Air Act also requires states to reduce haze and improve visibility. Reasonable progress toward that goal will be submitted to the EPA in late 2007.

Educating about options

Education continues to be an important goal to instill air pollution awareness, Kessler says. Communication strategies include school programs like "Easy Breathers" and "Air Defenders" as well as messages for adults that encourage using mass transit when commuting. Environmentally responsible driving also can cut exhaust emissions, reduce fuel use and save money.

Open burning of home garbage remains a concern and this low-temperature burning at ground level remains the number one dioxin threat to aquatic organisms. Burning solid waste materials such as treated wood, plastic, household garbage and most all other trash is prohibited statewide; local ordinances may be more stringent.

Outdoor wood-fired boilers and furnaces are also becoming more popular and causing local air concerns. Wood smoke causes particle pollution and emits toxics at the low burning temperatures in these boilers. DNR has neither the authority nor funding to address the problem. As a result, this air pollution issue is largely handled by local governments. Some communities have enacted ordinances that prohibit or control burning and wood boilers within their jurisdictions.

Future resources

The air pollution challenges are greater than ever, but will the funding that is needed to continue and build on these efforts keep pace? The picture is not bright according to Kessler.

"Reductions in state and federal funding for our state air pollution program are compounded by the constraints in how we use our funding," Kessler says. "We don't have the discretion to address DNR's highest priorities and it's critical to work with our stakeholders to resolve funding issues."

Monitoring equipment that is aging is used to continue baseline sampling and identify problems early on. The Department of Natural Resources has had to reduce the number of air quality monitors and hasn't been able to replace obsolete equipment. People demand information online and in real-time. 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. But it's not cheap.

"Ironically, budgetary problems have arisen as a result of Wisconsin's air quality monitoring success," Kessler says. "Emissions are dropping yet our fees are tied to emission amounts, so success means we have less and less money to do regular local inspections and to monitor air quality. It's the price of success."

The last 30 years saw significant progress in air quality improvement, but the next 30 years will be equally important. The DNR's air management program will build on the acid rain partnership model and lessons that were learned. "There are a lot of challenges, but also a lot of potential to make important and necessary changes in Wisconsin's air quality," Kessler says.

Natasha Kassulke is creative products manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources.