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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Simple tests like blowing a pinwheel can give early signals of a child's stamina for outdoor play.

© Kristina Teeter, American Lung Assoc. of the Upper Midwest

August 2007

Looking for clear solutions

A host of approaches offer practical ways to clean up the air.

Anne Bogar
Mark McDermid
Lloyd and Patrick Eagan
Ed Jepsen

Reach people close to home
Give companies breathing room
What works in other parts of the world?
What can you learn from a plant?

We asked five people involved in helping to clear Wisconsin's air for some advice on how to improve air quality. Here's how they responded:


Reach people close to home

Anne Bogar: Outreach through businesses, neighborhoods, health clinics and the airwaves keeps people informed.

TV meteorologists, insurance company managers, allergists, computer programmers and social workers are just a few of an expanded network of partners conveying air quality information so the public can make informed choices to protect their health. While more than 3,000 substances have been measured in the air, we regulate about 500, and there are outdoor air quality standards for only six. We need the expertise and the contacts through all of our partners to share what we know and what we need to know about the health effects of air pollution. Today, our partners help clean the air in ways we could only imagine when we first started talking about acid rain a few decades ago.

Allergists, pulmunologists, family practice doctors, school-based clinics and school nurses are now all explaining the links between pollution and respiratory health. DNR educators work with the American Lung Association, Fight Asthma Milwaukee and the Partners for Clean Air Health Committee to develop and distribute information to over 275 clinics and doctors in southeast Wisconsin where pollution concerns are concentrated. We try to keep the message simple. Tear-off sheets similar to prescription pads share the gist of health information at medical office displays. Each clinic also gets cover letters, posters and pamphlets to share with patients in their native languages. Evaluation forms provide feedback aiming to refine the message for each community.

Working closely with the National Weather Service and broadcast meteorologists, the DNR issues air quality watches and advisories when air pollutant concentrations rise. "Watches" are issued when unhealthy levels of pollution that can affect those most sensitive (older adults, children and those with heart or lung disease) are predicted for the next day. During watches, individuals are encouraged to take actions to reduce emissions by limiting car trips, delaying grass cutting and docking their watercraft. "Advisories" are issued when air pollution concentrations reach or exceed unhealthy levels for sensitive groups. The Weather Service and forecasters increase public awareness and explain the link between weather and air quality. They show people how air pollution can move in large masses like storms and how air pollution has no borders, crossing community boundaries, city limits and vast expanses hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Businesses, government offices, schools, medical facilities and health organizations spread the word by sponsoring programs to discuss air quality health effects. Large employers in southeast Wisconsin were original members of the Wisconsin Partners for Clean Air and Ozone Action Days. Since 1995, the group has grown to more than 250 Wisconsin Partners who take voluntary actions to improve air quality. Many partners notify employees on air quality watch days and provide incentives to carpool, bus, walk or bike to work while reducing emissions at the worksite. In recent years, partners programs have expanded to Dane, Jefferson, Fond du Lac and Winnebago counties.

In one of the longer running programs, DNR staff cooperate with the Sixteenth Street Health Clinic in Milwaukee to help people make the connection between respiratory illness and poor air quality. It's part of a larger environmental health project focusing on adults and children in the culturally diverse community on Milwaukee's south side, targeting Hispanics, Southeast Asians and African Americans.

To get the big picture of regional pollution, hazecams show current video of air visibility taken from rooftops and overviews at various panoramic locations. Hazy days are often caused by a mix of pollutants we can and cannot see. The hazecams update camera images every 15 minutes around the clock and are displayed with current air quality and meteorological data. The MidWest hazecam includes sites in Chicago, Ill.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Grand Portage and St. Paul, Minn.; Sault Ste. Marie and Seney Wildlife Refuge, Mich. and St. Louis, Mo. Funding for additional sites, including one in Milwaukee, was lost in the past year.

The acid rain control program development more than 20 years ago helped forge the way to look for innovative solutions to air pollution problems. It emphasized relying on research and looking beyond our borders. The partners we work with today continue to pursue innovative ways to regulate air pollution and educate the public about air quality and their health. Our best solutions come from working together.

Anne Bogar coordinates community outreach programs
for DNR's air management program.

Give companies breathing room

Mark McDermid: Agree on goals and trust firms to innovate to reach them.

Companies are finding that a little bit of flexibility, better understanding of their business needs, some community involvement and a little public recognition provide a potent combination that can profitably reduce environmental risks. They understand that managing costs while meeting environmental standards is just one more challenge in remaining competitive and profitable while protecting both corporate and community interests.

In a more typical approach, it can take years to set the standards that businesses and communities must meet to comply with environmental laws. It would be preferable to tap business potential to respond quickly and develop innovative solutions. The Environmental Cooperation Pilot Program and Green Tier provide a legal framework to challenge businesses to look at a full range of environmental opportunities and take steps that all pioneers take by working on problems together in uncharted territory. Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) provides a concrete example of environmental and business gains made possible by addressing environmental risks through flexible and creative approaches.

Back in 1998, PCA was required to collect and incinerate gaseous emissions from its pulp mill in Tomahawk. PCA research identified a different kind of pollution control system, an anaerobic digester that could economically reduce six times more pollution than was required by existing environmental regulations. Using flexibility provided under the law, PCA installed the new system at half the cost of more conventional technology. It captured and treated 1.6 million pounds of pollution, more than five times the 300,000 pounds that would have been captured using traditional methods.

George Kleist, PCA wastewater engineer, holds digester residues used as a high quality soil amendment. © Richard Ebert, PCA
George Kleist, PCA wastewater engineer, holds digester residues used as a high quality soil amendment.

© Richard Ebert, PCA

Further, PCA found that byproducts from their digester could be used for fuel and could replace virgin, purchased fuels. Consequently, PCA launched a $2.4 million project to collect biogas from the digester and use it to fire an on-site boiler to produce steam. The recovered biofuel produces the amount of energy equivalent to heating and cooling 2,250 homes. The program has reduced annual greenhouse gas emissions by 70,000 tons.

To put this into perspective, a $10 million biomass gasification plant currently planned for a pulp mill in British Columbia is forecast to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25,000 metric tons per year. So PCA is eliminating nearly three times more emissions for about a quarter of the cost of the Canadian project. PCA's closed loop system demonstrates that a flexible approach and technological innovation can enhance both environmental performance and company profitability.

Like Packaging Corporation of America, five other pioneers participating in Wisconsin's Environmental Cooperation Pilot Program have been outperforming the rest of the state in controlling greenhouse gases while addressing other significant environmental issues. Green Tier now provides a way for others to participate and offers even more tools to deliver environmental results with greater flexibility. Trade associations, organizations and companies alike have boldly stepped out of the comfortable confines of traditional regulatory approaches to explore their environmental and economic potential. Their strategies have saved thousands of hours of staff time, enabled bids to beat out national and international competitors, drawn work into the state and attracted new talent, all while addressing environmental issues in a comprehensive fashion.

Mark McDermid directs
DNR's Cooperative Environmental Assistance Bureau.

What works in other parts of the world?

Lloyd and Patrick Eagan: Consider international approaches to meet air quality challenges.

We can learn from other countries' experiences even if they do not represent exact models for us to replicate. Leadership in environmental protection has been teeter-tottering among the U.S., Europe and Japan. In air quality protection for example, the United States led the world with the original Clean Air Act in the 1970s, but by 2000 Europe surpassed that lead, particularly in the areas of energy efficiency and climate change. Here are some observations from our opportunities to examine approaches to environmental protection in European countries and Japan.

In Germany, Wisconsin delegations toured power plants and learned about burgeoning growth of both air pollution control and renewable energy technology. During the late '90s, Germany passed a law requiring their utilities to slash nitrogen oxides emissions. The country reduced NOx emissions in four years, on time and under budget. How did this happen so fast? It appears that when the German public learned their forests were dying from nitrogen oxide emissions, the Green Party grew strong enough to win support for this key law. Also, the growth in windmills and renewable technology was seen as strategic, spurred in large part by regulation. German utilities were required to buy power from renewable energy producers even if it cost more than the current electrical rates. Establishing a guaranteed market for renewable energy created incentives for German entrepreneurs to develop new technologies to produce renewable energy.

Danes get 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources, such as wind. © Wolfgang Hoffmann
Danes get 20 percent of their energy from
renewable resources, such as wind.

© Wolfgang Hoffmann

Providing relevant and effective incentive systems to protect the environment will provide greater overall environmental benefits than regulations in the long run. Industries that discover how to sustain growth and decrease their environmental consequences are developing new sustainable economic models. The growth of the Danish wind industry provides a good example. Denmark, like Wisconsin, has none of its own fossil fuels. Danes took the oil crisis of the '70s very seriously and the country currently gets 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources, such as wind. Their experts on energy policy believe a goal of 100 percent renewable energy will be achievable. Danish energy cooperatives explored wind turbines to save money on energy production and spawned a profitable industry. Denmark has become the largest producer of wind turbines in the world and wind energy has become a key component of a sustainable Danish economy.

In the Netherlands, we learned a National Environmental Policy Plan (NEPP) now includes aggressive targets to control greenhouse gas emissions. The government proposed an industrial tax on carbon emissions. The paper industry responded that such a tax would put them at a competitive disadvantage, but agreed to support the government greenhouse gas targets by pledging to become the most energy-efficient paper industry in the world. The Dutch government entered into a covenant with the industry to seal the deal. By using contract law as an alternative approach to regulation, the Dutch met both environmental and economic targets.

Finally, using "eco-designed" products is another approach to environmental improvement. Examples include green buildings, more fuel efficient vehicles, and more energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. In Japan, "eco fairs" draw thousands of visitors each year and display a large variety of ecologically designed products. So, in addition to traditional regulations, economic incentives, alternative legal tools and environmentally sensitive product design can contribute to a greener and cleaner future that is economically viable.

Lloyd Eagan directs DNR's South Central Region and Professor Patrick Eagan directs the Department of Engineering Professional Development program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What can you learn from a plant?

Ed Jepsen: Quite a lot if you ask the right questions.

Change is a fact of life and we typically want to know if it will provide more benefits than stumbling blocks. Studying plants and animals in their native habitats provides one reliable measure of how mixtures of complex changes affect nature. And teasing out whether ecosystem change is related to acid rain, ozone, climate change or combinations of manmade and natural factors takes time.

For instance, acid rain was predicted to naturally fertilize some agricultural crops, but the adverse effects on lakes and forests in Europe, North America and Asia far outweighed those minor benefits. Fortunately, we in Wisconsin were spared the worst of these consequences by reducing emissions quickly, and the nation soon followed suit.

Long-term studies of organisms, called "biomonitoring," and examining complex processes such as energy and nutrient flow can help us estimate natural background conditions. These studies provide a meaningful baseline for assessing future changes. While certain effects may be obvious within months or a year, others may take many years or decades to unfold.

Biomonitoring is just one of the valuable tools used to assess long-term trends. Combined with laboratory studies to determine explicit cause-effect relationships, and computer modeling to project changes over time and space, scientists can test the direction and magnitude of ecosystem changes.

Milkweed leaves develop characteristic brown stippling when exposed to airborne ozone. © Robert Queen
Milkweed leaves develop characteristic brown stippling when exposed to airborne ozone.

© Robert Queen

Some of the natural changes are more dramatic and some are more subtle. Drought, flooding, intense storms, and insect and disease outbreaks have more immediate consequences, but the way people change the landscape, the slow introduction of exotic organisms, and the gradual changes to air, land and water are harder to see. Our sustained investment in long-term biomonitoring and other environmental monitoring builds a database we need to sense changes that can develop over decades or longer.

Biomonitoring studies to track the effects of air pollution have been conducted in Wisconsin since the early 1980s. The federal North American Sugar Maple Project and the state-sponsored Forest Monitoring Network tracked the health of the forest tree (aspen) canopy. These studies indicated tree canopies were generally healthy and air pollution impacts, if any, were too subtle to be detected by the study methods used.

State-sponsored biomonitoring of milkweed and lichen to track air pollutants has been discontinued, but regional forest health assessments still occur annually on Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) plots in Wisconsin.

How valuable is this data? Ozone biomonitoring data collected on the FIA plots since the early 1990s guided EPA scientists in reassessing ozone standards. Based on this field data and other evidence, EPA recommended lower seasonal ozone exposures to protect our plant communities.

Ed Jepsen is a plant pest and disease specialist
with DNR's Bureau of Air Management in Madison.