Jack Moneypenny can hardly believe his ears.
“I am just dumbfounded,” he says.
The head of the Door County Visitor Bureau has just been told by a reporter that his county has some of the state’s dirtiest air. In fact, it recently got a grade of D from the American Lung Association due to high levels of ground-level ozone.
Door County’s air is even riskier to breathe than Milwaukee’s, according to the ALA study, which tabulated air pollution data from 2008, 2009 and 2010. In those three years, the idyllic peninsular county had nine “orange alert” days for dangerous smog levels, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, compared to eight in Milwaukee County.
Other lakeshore counties, including Ozaukee and Manitowoc, also received low marks for air quality. Sheboygan residents suffered through the greatest number of orange alerts, with 12 in those three years, earning the county a grade of F.
So what gives?
Milwaukee is to blame, it turns out, along with Chicago and Gary, Ind. Hot summer winds from the south blow a smog-laced cocktail of fossil-fuel exhaust and industrial chemicals up the Lake Michigan shore and into more bucolic regions, according to Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney for the environmental group Clean Wisconsin. Blame cars, coal-fired power plants and factories.
Which city is most to blame, however, is up for debate. Wheeler says it’s hard to pinpoint whether Milwaukee or the Chicago-Gary area is more at fault for Door County’s polluted air. The latter takes up the largest urban area, but Milwaukee is closer. Suffice it to say that the effect is cumulative.
This spring, the EPA announced that all of Wisconsin’s counties, except Sheboygan and Kenosha, meet the latest federal ozone standards of 75 parts per billion, though this is unlikely to bring Door County or anywhere else on the Lake Michigan shore much relief from lung-harming air.
“Seventy-five [parts] is not strong enough to adequately protect public health,” says Dona Wininsky, director of public policy and communications at the Wisconsin chapter of the American Lung Association.
Sheboygan Mayor Terry Van Akkeren calls the EPA’s decision to keep Sheboygan County, where ozone averages 78 parts per billion, in the nonattainment category both “unfair” and “arbitrary,” noting that most of the smog drifts up from the bigger cities and that “we stick out a bit into Lake Michigan.”
Scientists have recommended lowering the standard to 70 or even 60 parts. Under the latter, all Wisconsin counties where ozone is monitored – except for Ashland, Florence and Waukesha – would fall out of compliance. Door County, which barely clears existing standards with an average level of 73 parts per billion, would fall miles from EPA approval.
That’s a reality Moneypenny might find hard to accept. “I am sitting here looking at a clear blue sky,” he says, “surrounded by all the people enjoying it.”