Tackling air quality among county’s priorities

Maureen Hart (far right) of Marengo points out a bird Thursday as she and her daughter Amanda ride bicycles at Lippold Park in Crystal Lake.
Maureen Hart (far right) of Marengo points out a bird Thursday as she and her daughter Amanda ride bicycles at Lippold Park in Crystal Lake.

Steve Fuller approached the Crystal Lake City Council six years ago because he thought the community could do more to help the local environment.

Since then, the Crystal Lake Clean Air Counts Committee has created no-idling zones at its schools and train station, established green city policies and tried to raise awareness about what residents can do to be environmentally friendly.

“The biggest contributor to pollution in the county is traffic,” Fuller said. “It’s not a heavy industrial base, so one of the things we focused on is traffic. That means biking, idling.  Not everyone is aware of the environmental issues that impact the county. I think it’s a matter of education, not want or desire.”

Most of the air quality issues in McHenry County arise from vehicle emissions.

The county has few industry polluters, and the county’s air quality, as tracked in Cary by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, ranks higher than the state average.

But despite the lack of smog, McHenry County has to meet the federal environmental rules set out for areas that don’t meet federal standards.

Air quality in McHenry County

Emissions, including those from vehicles, travel easily, blown across county lines by the wind, so just because an area meets the standards, that doesn’t mean it’s not contributing to other areas not meeting them, said Mike Rogers, a specialist in the IEPA’s division that handles mobile emitters, such as cars.

The suburbs radiating out from Chicago also spread into McHenry County, meaning that commuters often are driving through other counties, he said. The population growth and traffic patterns link the area to Chicago unlike, for example, Rockford, which is more of an independent city.

Meeting standards means McHenry County residents pay extra at the pump for cleaner-burning fuel, and to receive federal funding, transportation projects can’t negatively affect the environment.

Local gas stations – like the rest in the Chicago area and other large metropolitan areas – were required to make the switch to the summer gasoline by the start of June.

This summer blend, known as reformulated gas, goes through additional refining designed to reduce the emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone, better known as smog, which inflames lung tissue and can aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These extra steps add 3 cents to 5 cents per gallon, Rogers said.

“When the price goes up 25 cents from today to tomorrow, it’s not because of reformulated gas,” he said. “It’s not because of environmental requirements. The refineries have been doing this for a while. If they have an upset at a facility, that is going to reduce the supply, and that is going to impact the supply and price far more than reformulated gas.”

Nancy Schietzelt sympathizes with drivers over the high gas prices, but as the president of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County’s board of directors, she sees a side benefit.

Higher prices may be causing people to drive less or to switch to more fuel-efficient cars, she said.

The number of miles driven in Illinois peaked in 2005 at 108.6 billion miles, dropping 5.6 percent to a 2008 low of 102.5 billion miles, according to Traffic Volume Trends, a monthly report prepared by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Highway Policy Information.

While the number of miles driven in Illinois has risen all but one year since 2008, reaching 106.1 billion in 2012, the trend – which is occurring nationwide – has caught the attention of the McHenry County Division of Transportation.

Less driving plus more fuel-efficient cars means fewer gas tax dollars, and the gasoline tax makes up “a good chunk” of the county’s transportation funding, said Jason Osborn, the county’s principal transportation planner.

“On the bright side, our air is getting cleaner,” he said.

Local efforts to keep air clean

As the county puts together its long-term transportation plan, it is incorporating elements that could have a positive effect on air quality.

The plan emphasizes the defusing of traffic congestion, which can lead to the reduction in vehicle emissions, Osborn said.

Roundabouts and other green infrastructure such as bike and pedestrian paths also have been proposed. Both elements reduce idling or get cars off the roads completely, Schietzelt said.

Idling cars daily release more than 25 tons of ozone-causing emissions in the greater Chicago, according to Clean Air Counts, a public-private initiative working to improve air quality.

Of the 31 municipalities in McHenry County, five are members of the Clean Air Counts initiative. One township and the McHenry County Council of Governments also have signed up.

The McHenry County Conservation District has switched half its fleet to alternative fuels, including E85, and has three hybrids, spokeswoman Wendy Kummerer said. Hybrids automatically shut off the engine when the car is idling.

No-idling zones were one of the Crystal Lake Clean Air Counts Committee’s first initiatives, said Brad Mitchell, the assistant to the city manager and the staff liaison to the committee. The zones are designed to raise awareness, and idlers aren’t fined.

The city is moving toward a citywide idling policy for municipal vehicles, he said. The public works and police departments have their own policies to limit idling.

The Crystal Lake committee was created six years ago when Fuller approached the City Council about the city getting involved in the Sierra Club’s Cool Cities Campaign. The committee since has expanded its focus to broader environmental concerns, he said.

The committee has advocated for a number of green policies for the city, including adopting purchasing guidelines to factor in whether products are energy-efficient or emit fewer smog-forming chemicals.

To raise awareness and an awareness of the city’s bike path system, the committee puts on events such as the upcoming Bike with Your Neighbor Scavenger Hunt.

On June 23, participants will crisscross the city on bikes, checking in at 20 locations, Fuller said. The first event four years ago drew 60 attendees, and this year 200 to 250 participants are expected.

In May, nearby Algonquin released cellphone-friendly interactive maps designed to help bicyclists navigate the village. They include distance and elevation data for the bike routes, as well as local shop and restaurant locations.

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