Cloud City

Written by Jessica Testa Category: Valley News Issue: March 2012


Last July, a mammoth, billowing dust cloud tumbled into the Valley, crashing into skyscrapers and enveloping cookie-cutter homes in a scene ripped straight from a CGI-heavy apocalypse movie. Afterward, T-shirts were sold – “I Survived the Great Phoenix Haboob” – while YouTube was flooded with shaky cell phone videos captured from passenger seats.

The Valley had seen high-wind events before, but in the memories of countless environment and weather service officials, no storm could compare to the July 5 event. That single, sinister cloud rolled into the city carrying two years’ worth of pollution.

The dust eventually settled, and the summer’s monsoon season fizzled away in a series of smaller sandstorms. But for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), the storm began long before and still rages on.

For years, the county had been exceeding federal standards for levels of PM10, a dust particle that contributes to air pollution, causes breathing problems and stimulates Phoenix’s brown cloud – that smudgy, ominous miasma smeared above the city, usually on still, cloudless days. ADEQ estimates that the “Great Phoenix Haboob” blasted more than 100,000 tons of PM10 into the Valley’s air in one day. Typically, Maricopa County sees about 48,000 tons of PM10 per year.     

These storms not only intensify Phoenix’s pollution problems, but they also stir up back-and-forth bluster between state and federal agencies and public health advocates. And they provide one more reason for officials to wonder if Phoenix, once a Wild West sanctuary for urbanites seeking clean air, will ever be rid of its brown cloud.

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Dust Devils
The brown cloud isn’t just unsightly – it’s costly and dangerous. Costly for state programs that rely on federal funding. Dangerous for people with respiratory diseases (and aerobic life forms, in general).

More than 444,000 adults and children in the Phoenix area have asthma, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). Another 133,000 suffer from chronic bronchitis and 63,000 more suffer from emphysema. Overall, the ALA rated the Valley the second worst area in the country for year-round particle pollution.

“People in Phoenix are losing about 1 percent off their lifespan by breathing this air. Parents have lost their children to asthma attacks on bad air days,” says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter and a frequent critic of ADEQ. But, she notes, “All of us suffer, even if we don’t have respiratory issues.”

What’s more, the brown cloud could cause Arizona to lose millions of dollars in federal highway funds if the state fails to comply with the Clean Air Act, legislation passed in 1970 out of a national concern for public health.

When a region fails to meet the Clean Air Act’s air-quality standards, the EPA deems it a “non-attainment area.” The state’s regulating environmental agency must then submit a long-term plan – called a State Implementation Plan (SIP) – for re-attaining those standards. The first time Arizona had to submit a SIP was in 1972. Attainment failures have persisted ever since. 

The threat of an EPA/Clean Air Act sanctions clock is the only mechanism that really gets ADEQ and the Arizona Legislature moving, says Joy Herr-Cardillo, staff attorney at the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Herr-Cardillo has been involved in multiple lawsuits against the state, including last September’s successful attempt to direct state funds from the lottery system into Maricopa County’s transportation fund. The lawsuit was filed after the Arizona Legislature sucked money from the Local Transportation Assistance Fund to help balance its wobbling budget, effectively cutting off plans to reduce particulate matter and other pollutants. One of the plaintiffs in that case was Sandy Bahr.

“People who don’t like environmental protections are using the bad economy as a way to defund agencies. We hear legislators saying, ‘Oh, we live in the desert. We’re special. We have dust,’” Bahr says. “But we deserve as clean of air as anyone living in the East, Midwest, or wherever. The standards under the Clean Air Act are not arbitrary; they’re backed up with medical research. Our lungs are not special.”

Down with Brown
Arizona received its first EPA non-attainment spanking in 1972, but the state’s first comprehensive, targeted effort to clean up the brown cloud began in 2000, with Governor Jane Hull’s establishment of the Brown Cloud Summit. The summit consisted of 32 community leaders – members of the legislature, officials from state departments and representatives from companies including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Knight Transportation and Motorola. A year later, the summit made more than a dozen final suggestions to the governor – including implementing high-pollution alert days, which many counties have today, and banning leaf blowers, a move that was halted in the legislature because of pressure from the landscaping and tourism industries.

In 2007, after EPA designated Maricopa County a non-attainment area for failing to meet its PM10 standards, ADEQ was forced to submit an air-quality improvement strategy called the “5 Percent Plan.” The plan aimed to reduce the county’s PM10 emissions by 5 percent for three consecutive years, until it met the federal standard in 2010. But PM10 levels were still unacceptably high in 2008 and 2009, and the plan didn’t convince the EPA that ADEQ was making adequate progress.

In September 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed to partially reject the department’s 5 Percent Plan. In January 2011, before the EPA could take official action on its proposal to disapprove the plan, ADEQ withdrew it, earning another year for revisions. If the state doesn’t submit a new plan within two years of its withdrawal, it could face punishment from the EPA, including the loss of federal highway dollars.

Eric Massey has been the director of ADEQ’s Air Quality Division for just short of two years – he wasn’t the director who submitted the 5 Percent Plan, but he was the one who withdrew it. There were several reasons EPA proposed partial rejection of the plan, Massey says, but the disapproval really comes down to one thing: “We didn’t show compliance with the PM10 standards at the monitor at the time we said we would.”

Under the Clean Air Act, states are allowed an average of one PM10-level exceedance per year over a three-year period. So having three exceedances in one year is fine, as long as you have no exceedances the next two years.

According to a report from the Maricopa Association of Governments, there was just one day exceeding PM10 levels in 2007. But in 2008, there were 11 exceedances. ADEQ disputed 10 of those exceedances as high-wind days – or “exceptional events,” as ADEQ and EPA call them. EPA countered that four of those 10 days didn’t match its definition of an exceptional event. It thus became impossible for the state to meet attainment standards under the 5 Percent Plan, which aimed to increasingly reduce exceedances each year.


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Dust in the Wind
Moving forward, ADEQ would need to more clearly identify its emissions inventory – the sources of the dust and PM10 exceedances – so that it could better control them.

“EPA thought our emissions inventory was too heavily centered on construction. They asked us, ‘If you think your problem was mostly construction, why hasn’t the problem gone away when the housing industry tanked?’” Massey says. “We thought that was a fair question.”

EPA recommended that ADEQ focus more on pollution generated by the agriculture industry, as well as dust coming from unpaved roads and vacant lots. In April 2011, Governor Jan Brewer signed into law House Bill 2208, which gave ADEQ the authority to issue dust action general permits to outline the best management practices for people who own unpaved roads and vacant lots.

“Nobody likes extra regulation, but we had to do this,” Massey says. “If you own one of these lots, we now have the opportunity to take you out of this unpermitted realm and stick you under a permit. Really, you’re not going to have to do more, because you should already be doing all of this: record-keeping, monitoring, making sure there are enough controls on site to fix dust problems.”

HB 2208 also directed the agency to publish on its website a five-day dust-generation forecast, updated daily. Massey took the direction a step further in late 2011, developing a listserv people could use to get the forecast via email or text message. That way, people in the regulated community – farmers, developers and now vacant-lot owners – could avoid dust-generating activities on high-risk days. Massey is optimistic that people will follow the forecast’s recommendations with a little outreach and education from the agency, although there will be no enforcement from his “air cops.”

One pollution problem Massey considers solved is PM10 exceedances on stagnant days. Most of the exceedances in and after 2008 were caused by exceptional events – or rather, ADEQ’s definition of exceptional events.

“We had a wicked monsoon season last year, and it impacted air quality for weeks,” Massey says. “What were we supposed to do with that? If you want me to control that, I need to get Wile E. Coyote with his sign in front of every storm, just saying ‘Stop!’”

But many local environmentalists believe ADEQ has overused the exceptional-event excuse, mangling the very definition of “exceptional.”

“A great deal of effort on the part of the state is being put into trying to get out from under the requirements of the Clean Air Act by having incidents qualify as exceptional events, even though they’re really quite frequent,” Herr-Cardillo says. “In essence, it’s sort of like focusing on test scores instead of focusing on learning the material.”

ADEQ is working to develop demonstrations to prove to the EPA that the state shouldn’t be accountable for many of our monsoon storms. This summer, ADEQ expects to spend $1 million in research, analysis and consultation to make these exceptional-event demonstrations. 

“More controls won’t solve these [exceptional events]. Often times, dust is originating from Pinal County or Mexico and pushing toward Phoenix. So what do we do here in Maricopa County?” Massey says. “EPA is loathe to call anything an exceptional event, and I understand why. But I can’t get a hose out. I can’t get a giant fan to blow that dust someplace else.”

The EPA defines exceptional events as “unusual or naturally occurring events that can affect air quality but are not reasonably controllable.” In an effort to protect the “unusual” part of the definition, the EPA requires extensive documentation of the event before even considering the designation.

“If you try to write off a bunch of events as exceptional, that’s contrary to the meaning of ‘exceptional,’” Bahr says.

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Blame Game
Because of its brown cloud and other pollution problems, Phoenix has consistently earned low marks from the American Lung Association in its annual State of the Air report. In 2011, the Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale area was ranked No. 2 on the list of cities with the worst year-round particle pollution, tied with California’s Visalia-Porterville area and below only California’s Bakersfield-Delano area.

But Massey points out an important distinction in some of the American Lung Association rankings – Maricopa County and Pinal County are grouped together. And while ALA gave Pinal County an F-grade for its 24-hour particle pollution, Maricopa County received a B. (Both, however, received a failing grade for ozone, a pollutant separate from PM10.)

“Take a step back and you realize that while the population in Phoenix has doubled in the last 20 years, PM10 levels have come down 25 percent in Maricopa County,” Massey says. “EPA doesn’t really help us out with that misconception. Every time we get close to meeting their standard, they change the rules. Think of it like limbo. Just about the time we get good at getting under that bar, they drop the bar again.”

EPA-fatigue runs so high in the state that members of the Republican-controlled Senate have tried to exempt Arizona from the EPA’s regulation. In early 2011, Senate Bill 1393 (the “Freedom to Breathe Act”) made headway in the legislature, with its sponsors proposing that Arizona nullify the EPA’s standards, overriding federal law and swapping it for a multi-state environmental compact.

The bill made it through the Senate but died in the House, where it found little support from the chairwoman of the environment committee, Rep. Amanda Reeve (R-Anthem).

“[Other members of the legislature] always assume it’s overregulation and that we need to get rid of EPA and ADEQ. Yes, you do need to rein them in sometimes, but these guys are really trying very hard,” says Reeve, who held a two-hour committee session on air quality last spring.   

Reeve argues that the more the state strengthens ADEQ, the less regulation it will face from the EPA. She supports ADEQ when it comes to expanding the definition of exceptional events, and she believes the driving force behind Arizona’s pollution is simply crosscurrent weather from other states, like California, and bordering countries, like Mexico. 

“I really do believe that our location, the Valley, just has a really hard time,” she says. “It flows in from other states and settles in this area.”

Bahr and Herr-Cardillo believe Phoenix’s pollution problem is more man-made.

“The idea that we live in the desert and it’s dusty is simplistic. It’s not the problem,” Herr-Cardillo says. “We’ve got this sprawling community where it’s very difficult to live or function without a car. ADEQ is trying to eliminate vehicle emissions at the tailpipe, but we’re not focusing on the vehicle miles traveled. We’re not focusing on how we’re designing the city.”

Hazy Solutions
Currently there’s little public outcry surrounding Phoenix’s pollution problem, partially because the health effects of the brown cloud are long-term – losing 1 percent of your life isn’t really a concern to the general public when there are more pressing short-term dangers.

“The brown cloud has a long-term effect, and when you have an economic crisis, people stop focusing on the long-term,” Massey says. “You focus on keeping your job and feeding your family. You don’t buy a hybrid car.”

Even in the realm of air quality, short-term crises – such as the effect of toxic gas – take precedence. That doesn’t mean environmental agencies have stopped working to solve long-term problems like the brown cloud – but it does mean that the public is less prone to push lawmakers for anti-pollution legislation.

Massey isn’t worried about meeting the deadline for submitting a new plan – at press time, he said the new plan was going to be submitted in February or March 2012, about a year before his deadline. But he has another problem inching its way onto his pollution plate. The EPA has indicated that it will soon designate Pinal County a non-attainment area. That means Massey must submit a whole new State Implementation Plan with Pinal County agencies to comply with the Clean Air Act. Once Pinal County receives the non-attainment designation, the agencies will have 18 months to develop that SIP.

“We’re expecting it, maybe sometime in February, but we don’t know for sure when the designation is coming,” Massey says. “It’s like EPA is giving us that line from The Princess Bride, when Dread Pirate Roberts tells Westley, ‘Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.’”

EPA is also watching – with excitement, Massey says – Maricopa County’s new monitoring system, called the Rapid Response Notification System. Using 23 monitors placed strategically around the county, air quality inspectors can discern the concentration of particulate pollution every five minutes at 13 of the monitors, and every hour at 10 of the monitors.

The unprecedented five-minute system was developed in early 2011, says Holly Ward, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County AirQuality Department.

“There was an incident just the other weekend, where one of our monitors reported that pollution had spiked so high within a five-minute period that there was a serious health hazard,” Ward says. “We sent inspectors out to the monitor, and we found out someone was doing donuts in a nearby dirt lot.”

Normally, the monitor’s exceedances are caused by wind-blown dust events, Ward says. But the new system has allowed Maricopa County to pinpoint exceedances and take action, both reactive (e.g. sending inspectors out to investigate exceedances) and proactive (e.g. educating the public about the dangers of doing donuts in their 4x4s.)

Sandy Bahr is critical of the program. 

“While it’s great to have someone respond to those problems, it isn’t an effective way to get clean air throughout the non-attainment area, unless you had a program for doing that everywhere,” Bahr says. “Say there’s a big off-road vehicle group by a monitor. Someone’s going to go out there and tell them they can’t be kicking up all that dust. But if they’re away from a monitor, who’s going to go out and respond?”

ADEQ is also not ready to commit to the system. Massey wants to give it more time to see if it’s sustainable. “Does it solve our brown cloud? No. Will it impact our brown cloud? Yes, it will bring those PM10 levels down,” he says.

While Bahr concedes that desert conditions are indeed difficult for environmental agencies to work with, she believes there are more ways to minimize dust. For example, instead of bulldozing entire acres of land in one day, developers could progressively bulldoze over the course of several days, so as not to exceed PM10 levels in one fell swoop. Farmers could avoid plowing on high-pollution days, or plant vegetation to keep dust levels down.

Herr-Cardillo suggests that the state regulate indirect sources of pollution to help reduce PM10 levels. She calls these indirect sources “car magnets,” like shopping malls and subdivisions. When planning for these magnets, she suggests that developers think about long-term ways to reduce pollution before building even begins. For example, in a subdivision, they could use natural gas fireplaces as opposed to wood-burning fireplaces. The developers can build near transit lines, or make the development bike-friendly to reduce vehicle emissions.

“We’ve laid out our cities in such a way that we’re generating so much pollution, just from the way people move around,” Herr-Cardillo says. “If people choose to build a development that doesn’t include those features, they should pay a penalty fee, used to reduce emissions elsewhere represented by the new development.”

Massey’s improvements to the plan will include a more thorough emissions inventory and the implementation of the dust-action general permits – both steps in the right direction, Bahr says. Collectively, ADEQ hopes to show the EPA that state and county officials really are working toward meeting the PM10 standard. Once Massey submits the plan, the EPA has 18 months to approve or disapprove it. The director is confident the new plan will address all the concerns EPA had when it rejected portions of the 2007 plan. But that doesn’t mean he’s confident the plan will be approved.

“I can’t prejudge a process. I feel confident that the plan we submit will be the best plan we can put together,” he says. “But the brown cloud is always going to exist, because we will always have people. We will always have emissions. It can get better, it does get better, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be completely rid of it.”