GRAND RAPIDS (AP) — Air quality in western Michigan has improved in recent years, a change officials attribute in part to manufacturers cleaning up smokestack emissions and the state’s manufacturing decline.

Preliminary reports from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that factories in Kent County emitted fewer than 540,000 pounds of toxic air in 2003, an 80 percent decline from the 2.6 million pounds in 1999.

Ottawa County saw a drop of 36 percent to 3.5 million pounds, and Allegan and Muskegon counties experienced similar rates of decline.

Factories have been cleaning up emissions, but the state’s manufacturing losses also explain the cleaner air, Ruth Borgelt, an analyst for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told The Grand Rapids Press for a Sunday story.

“It should be good news. I think everybody should take it as that,” Borgelt said. But she added: “I’m sure the economy has something to do with it.”

The dramatic decline in Kent County’s air pollution numbers can be tracked to several of its largest polluters.

In 2000, one of the factories belonging to Venture Grand Rapids, an automotive plastics manufacturer, spewed 639,000 pounds of toxins that year. By 2002, the plant’s air pollution ended as its production declined.

Similarly, Steelcase Inc.’s wood furniture plant emitted 377,171 pounds in 2000, but closed the following year. In its place was built a new factory that will cut pollution by replacing solvent-based painting systems with water-soluble systems, said David Rinard, Steelcase’s director of corporate environmental performance.

Two other Steelcase plants also showed large declines: one to about 76,000 pounds in 2002 from 309,000 pounds in 2000, and to 12,108 pounds at the Kentwood complex in 2002 from 138,600 in 2000.

“When you look at those air emission numbers, there has been a fairly nice decrease,” said Janet Vail, associate professor at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute. “A lot of companies are changing their procedures and practicing pollution prevention. I guess the word is out.”

Coal-fired power plants remain the worst polluters in Ottawa County, which is third in toxic emissions only to Wayne and Monroe counties, and 59th in the nation.


A fresh breath

Examples of air emission improvements

Kent County — 80 percent decline in toxic emissions

Ottawa County, third worst polluting county in the state and 59th worst in the nation — 36 percent decline

Steelcase Inc. — closed one plant and showed declines in two others, amounting to more than half a million pounds less of emissions

Venture Grand Rapids — declining production leads to reduction of 639,000 pounds of toxic releases

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