Three days after Earth Day and nearly a year after Cincinnati City Council voted to restore some teeth to the city's air quality laws, those working to reinstate Title X of the municipal code say a new system of investigating and enforcing air quality violations is working pretty well.
After the city's Office of Environmental Management fell victim to shrinking city finances a few years ago, a team that included council members David Crowley and John Cranley, University of Cincinnati law students and local environmental activists came up with an alternate way to enforce air quality laws (see "Pollution Is a Crime," issue of May 12-18, 2004).
The city sidled up to the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services (HCDOES), which can then refer violations to the city's new community prosecution division as well as to local boards of health and the state and federal environmental protection agencies.
On April 25 Kerri Castlen, enforcement supervisor for HCDOES, told the Community Development, Education and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee that right now she's enforcing about 34 cases at various levels.
Between 1992 and 2004, air quality complaints dropped 56 percent, according to city lawyer Mike Harmon. Those concerning odors fell 70 percent. He said the decline could be credited to better technology or the long-term effects of a few decades of air quality legislation or pressure from activist groups on polluting industries.
But HCDOES has received 97 complaints from the city so far this year, well outpacing last year's total of 107 complaints, Castlen said. Yet speaker Marti Sinclair told council the spike in complaints as a good sign.
"If you have been calling about a complaint for a decade and it hadn't improved significantly, you would have given up," she said.
"I think people aren't responding to a dramatic plummeting in our air quality. I think people feel city council has been responsive to their long-standing desire for a livable neighborhood."
There's a snag, however: When the violators are located outside city lines, the city doesn't have the jurisdiction to apply the new laws even if the pollution affects city residents, Harmon said.
For example, Castlen said that about one-third of this year's complaints were traced to the "fatty acid odors" wafting into Winton Place and Winton Terrace from Cognis Corp., which is in Saint Bernard.
Even though in that case the city has no legal recourse, Harmon works to apply what he called "moral pressure" through frequent contact with the company.
"I'm trying to make it clear to them that we're reaching a point where we have to take some action," he said. "It's obviously a quality of life problem, even if not health."
He said that Cognis has agreed to commission a voluntary odor study.
Sinclair took exception to the idea that foul odors aren't damaging to health. When her husband hears the car making that clunking sound, his blood pressure shoots up whether or not the car's actually falling apart, she pointed out.
"People are worried about what this is doing to their health," she said.
A second major violator is Lanxess Plastics, whose foul odors and three recent accidental chemical releases have alarmed Sayler Park residents. Harmon said the city lacks jurisdiction over the Addyston chemical company, also the target of an Ohio Citizen Action campaign (www.ohiocitizen.org/ campaigns/bayer/bayer.html). But the city is keeping tabs, and Lanxess is working with HDOES and the Ohio EPA to shape up.
Councilwoman Laketa Cole asked for a breakdown of complaints by neighborhood. She joins many who see poor air quality disproportionately affecting poorer neighborhoods.
"This is a matter of environmental justice, because the communities by and large that are most grievously impacted by these nuisances are those of lower income," said activist Carl Evert, who keeps tabs on Title X through his Web site, www.title-x.org.
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