2010 Aug. 29: AZ Maricopa County: Air pollution in Maricopa County may lead to funding cuts
Air quality remains unhealthful, feds say
After repeated warnings and second chances, the federal government is ready to force the region to rid its air of unhealthful levels of dust, smoke and soot from construction, farming, power plants and motor vehicles.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce this week that it will reject the county’s latest plan to limit coarse-dust-particle pollution and levy a series of escalating sanctions until the air is cleaner.
Failure to reduce air pollution and meet federal air-quality standards could cost the region nearly $2 billion in direct highway funds, billions more in canceled transportation projects and the thousands of jobs those projects generate.
Ultimately, the EPA could step in and impose its own plan, taking control away from local authorities.
Maricopa County admits it has a pollution problem and developed what it thought was an ambitious dust-control plan in 2007 after earlier attempts to clean the air failed. Fine dust particles infiltrate people’s lungs and can lead to illness and even death.
State and county officials said their efforts were working, but the EPA said in May the county already had failed, and under pressure from environmental groups, the agency moved toward officially rejecting the county’s plan.
The EPA’s decision will become final in January, barring either a successful appeal or a lawsuit by state and county officials.
To restore withheld federal highway funding and satisfy the EPA, the county would have to revise its plan, adding costly new controls on construction, power generation, sand and gravel operations and even the use of leaf blowers and off-road vehicles.
State and county officials believe the EPA is basing its decision on a flawed rule about what defines a violation of the law. Federal officials say the county’s plan simply fails to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act, which sets pollution standards.
Critics say any attempt by the county to fight the EPA will waste time and obscure the real health threats from dust pollution.
"We want to work together to get clean air," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, which sued the EPA for failing to act on the county’s dust plan. "We know it’s not an easy thing to do, but we’re not going to get there by continuing to drag our feet. It’s time to get serious."
A losing battle
For nearly two decades, Maricopa County and state environmental regulators have tried and mostly failed to comply with federal dust-pollution standards, which set limits on the level of particles in the air and impose penalties if an area exceeds those limits too often.
Until recently, the region stayed one or two steps ahead of any penalties, agreeing to work harder each time clean-air goals failed.
The most recent steps, outlined in the 2007 plan and launched the next year, included 53 measures designed to reduce dust pollution, such as paving dirt roads and parking lots and limiting the speed limit on roads that remained unpaved; banning the use of leaf blowers and off-road vehicles on high-pollution days; and increasing monitoring and inspection at active construction sites.
Then in May, the EPA seemed to draw a final line. The agency rejected the state’s claim that events beyond their control – dust storms – were responsible for a series of high-pollution readings that meant Maricopa County had exceeded the number of days of poor air quality that the government permits. The agency warned the county that as a result, its entire dust-control plan was in jeopardy.
"It really caught us by surprise," said Lindy Bauer, environmental director for the Maricopa Association of Governments, the regional group that oversees the county’s air-quality planning activities in conjunction with the state and the county. "When we sat down with the regional administrator in May, we thought it was just to discuss issues with our plan."
The plan was submitted in December 2007 after the county failed at the end of December 2006 to attain the federal standard for coarse dust particles, also known as particulate matter. The missed 2006 deadline followed other unsuccessful attempts, dating back to 1994, to bring pollution levels below the EPA limit.
Coarse particles are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter, about one-seventh the size of a human hair. Fine dust particles, 2.5 micrometers or smaller, also are regulated, as is ozone.
Inhalable dust particles, such as those regulated by the EPA, can aggravate asthma and other breathing problems and can cause other respiratory and heart ailments, especially among children and older adults.
In the 2007 plan, the county was required by the EPA to show how it would reduce dust pollution by 5 percent each year until three years passed with no more than one violation in a year. In 2008, the first year to be measured, there were 12 unacceptably high readings on dust monitors placed around the county.
The state and county argued that 11 of the readings were linked to dust storms beyond the control of regulations, but the EPA disagreed. It analyzed four of the disputed readings and concluded that none could be attributed to dust storms. The result: The county, in one year, had already exceeded the number of allowed violations for the plan’s three-year cycle.
Bauer and others left the May meeting hoping they could work with the EPA to clear up any concerns before the dust plan was formally rejected. But in July, the federal agency dealt local authorities a second blow when it settled a lawsuit by agreeing to speed up its final decision on the plan.
The suit, filed in December by the Tucson-based Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, accused the EPA of failing to act on the dust plan within the time frame established by the Clean Air Act. The settlement, which included the Sierra Club and other interest groups, required the EPA to approve or reject the plan by Sept. 3, with a final decision to follow in late January.
That gave the state and county little time to respond, though officials have scrambled to submit additional information to sway the EPA. Local regulators also note that there have been no violations in 2010, suggesting that wetter conditions last winter helped contain some of the dust.
"We were disappointed by their analysis," said Benjamin Grumbles, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and a former EPA regulator. "It is a significant threat to our economic development if the EPA sticks to its guns and goes down this path. We think it’s all unnecessary."
Whether the EPA imposes sanctions on Maricopa County for dust pollution may turn in large part on readings at a single air-quality monitor in southwest Phoenix.
The monitor sits just south of the Salt River in an industrial area near Broadway Road and 43rd Avenue and is the source of the four readings now listed by the EPA as violating the PM-10 standard.
The setting – a dry riverbed, a landfill, a sand and gravel operation, a row of industrial-machinery lots – almost guarantees high pollution readings, but the county didn’t have a choice but to place a monitor there: The location is prescribed by federal rules.
"We have to have an area that represents the maximum concentration point in our airshed," said Max Porter, acting director of the Maricopa County Air Quality Department, the agency that enforces dust regulations. "It does go to illustrate the point that we have air struggles here. There’s always more that can be done."
But state and county officials say the monitor is especially susceptible to natural events, such as dust storms, because of its location near the river and downwind of farms and other desert areas where the ground is disturbed.
MAG hired a consultant to study the monitor’s readings, the weather conditions for the days in question and the condition of the land that could contribute dust. The studies found, for example, that there are about 1,500 acres of land upwind of the 43rd Avenue site that could generate dust when the wind blows. By contrast, a site about 3 miles away, near 27th Avenue and Durango Street, is surrounded by just 591 acres of land capable of producing dust.
What that means, MAG argues, is that the monitor near 43rd Avenue is in a location that makes it more likely to pick up dust during a storm.
Federal laws allow a state or county to challenge a high pollution reading and classify it as an "exceptional event," generally attributable to temporary conditions, such as wind, that can’t be controlled. State and county officials believe they were justified in seeking exemptions for all but one of the violations in 2008.
If the high readings were excluded, officials say, the county would have posted no violations since the 2007 plan took effect. With those four violations, the county failed to meet the standards of having no more than three violations by 2010.
Federal officials say they had suggested that the county delay implementing the three-year "no violation" period until more of its dust-control measures were in place, giving the plan a better chance of succeeding.
But Bauer, the MAG environmental director, said EPA rules require the county to reach the standards as quickly as possible. To seek a delay would have meant proving that the county was unable to attain the standards.
"It’s a health standard," Bauer said. "We wanted to attain it as quickly as possible."
Colleen McKaughan, the EPA’s Region 9 associate director for air-quality programs, said the EPA will base its decision on a review of the entire plan, not just the high readings from 2008. The county can submit changes to its existing plan, but in the end, she said, the county must still find a way to reach attainment of the standards in a three-year period.
"They’ve got some good building blocks, and some of the rules adopted are pretty good," she said. "But we feel a responsibility to the public to protect its health. If an area is meeting the standards, that that’s true measure."
The cost of failing to meet PM-10 standards is enormous, especially for a region hit so hard by the recession.
If the EPA formally rejects the dust-control plan in January, the clock starts ticking on a series of penalties, most of them focused on highway construction:
• Within the first 90 days of a rejection, the county’s regional transportation plan would be frozen and only projects in the first four years of the plan can proceed.
• After 18 months, major industrial polluters would be required to offset dust pollution on new projects at a significantly higher rate. The most common way of offsetting dust emissions is to pave nearby roads or parking lots, removing an existing source of dust. The size of the area needed would depend on how much pollution the builder wanted to offset. Under the sanctions, the builder would have to offset twice the amount of pollution that would be generated, which would raise costs from the start.
• If the county doesn’t submit a revised plan that is approved by the EPA within two years, the county could lose up to $1.7 billion in federal highway-construction funds by 2015. In addition, the county could not move ahead with other major transportation projects, such as the ongoing construction of Loop 303 in the West Valley or a light-rail extension into Mesa. That could take as much as $7.4 billion out of the economy and cost the region potentially thousands of jobs by 2015.
• If nothing the state and county do satisfies the EPA, the agency could choose to impose its own plan, which would likely introduce more stringent rules and leave the federal government in charge of enforcement.
State and county officials say they are frustrated because they believe their efforts to control dust are being obscured by the way the EPA is enforcing the exceptional-event rule. They say the agency delivered its decision with no advance warning and with little regard for the specific climatic and geographic conditions that affect the pollution monitor.
New efforts are under way to address some of those factors. Phoenix is working on a riparian restoration project that could help control dust in the Salt River bed near the 43rd Avenue monitor, but the payoff will take time.
"Our project has the potential to change land uses in a way that would be good for air quality," said Karen Peters, government-relations director for Phoenix. "What we’re looking at is not the industrial uses; it’s the natural conditions. The EPA is not giving our data the attention it needs."
The project, known as Rio Salado Oeste, would restore about 8 miles of Salt River habitat between 19th Avenue and 83rd Avenue over about 10 years. The city and its partners would plant trees and other vegetation in the riverbed, reducing dust sources, such as old gravel operations.
If state and county officials can revise their plan quickly, the EPA could put the penalties on hold and continue to evaluate air quality.
Bahr of the Sierra Club said the threat of losing federal highway funds is powerful.
"I think that the clock ticking will encourage some action, some real action," she said. "One thing they have always gotten serious about is highway funding. As much as there is this anti-federal government attitude, they do not want federal highway dollars to stop flowing."
Although MAG is looking at its legal options, state and county officials say they would prefer to avoid a lawsuit.
"We don’t think the solution is to disapprove our plan and slap the area with sanctions," said Grumbles, the ADEQ director. "They have our attention. We intend to clean the air and work to sustain the local economy."