Smokestack emissions

The DNR hasn't yet written state rules to comply with 2010 changes in federal air pollution rules.

Nearly five years after the federal government set new standards designed to protect public health from short, sharp spikes in air pollution levels, Wisconsin hasn’t made the rules mandatory for all polluters.

The state Department of Natural Resources hasn’t had enough time to consult with businesses about the economic impact of change, the agency’s top air-quality regulator said Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, two Madison-based environmental groups asked a Dane County judge to force the DNR to implement limits on emissions linked to acid rain, climate change and potentially life-threatening respiratory ills.

“Despite finding sufficient time and resources to adopt numerous other regulations at the behest of polluters since 2011 that allow more pollution without regulations or oversight, the Department has not met its statutory obligation to promulgate standards ... consistent with the federal standard,” the Midwest Environmental Defense Center and Clean Wisconsin said in the suit.

Clean Wisconsin attorney Elizabeth Wheeler said DNR staff on Wednesday filed paperwork for a regulatory rewrite to “streamline and simplify” air pollution permits to businesses. The DNR has also written rules extending compliance dates for controls on mercury emissions and other pollutants, said David Bender, an attorney for the environmental defense center.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “finding of failure” issued to the DNR in August for missing a 2012 deadline for new state rules on “incremental” increases in particles from smokestacks.

In 2010, the EPA updated its general standards for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and required states to submit new rules limiting particle increases. Late in 2012 it also issued general limits on fine particles. The DNR hasn’t revised state rules to reflect any of the changes.

Rewriting state rules to reflect the new general standards should not have been complicated because it would require inserting new numbers into existing rules, Wheeler said.

Pat Stevens, director of the DNR’s air-quality division, said rule-making for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides was complicated by a relatively new state requirement that the agency contact businesses, industry groups, local governments and individuals to assess the economic impact of the changes.

A state law and a 2011 executive order issued by Gov. Scott Walker mandated the assessment. However, business representatives didn’t respond to a 2012 DNR request for input, so the agency had to go to the businesses to obtain information, Stevens said.

“We’re close to wrapping it up, but that was a significant task,” Stevens said Thursday.

Stevens emphasized that the state meets air-quality standards everywhere except for an area with excessive sulfur dioxide pollution associated with a paper mill near Rhinelander.

Any major pollution sources that have needed a new air permit because of construction or expansion have been required by the state to follow the 2010 federal limits on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, he said.Major pollution sources who haven’t expanded haven’t needed to meet the limits. Neither have minor sources, he said.

The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to update standards every five years based on a review of the latest medical studies and other scientific data. The 2010 standards are based in part on findings that even short-term exposure to pollutants can harm health.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.