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March, 2012, Page 108
The “Great Phoenix Haboob” of July 5, 2011 crashes into the Valley of the Sun. Officials estimate more than 100,000 tons of the pollutant PM10 invaded the Valley’s air that day. Typically, Maricopa County sees about 48,000 tons of PM10 per year.
How now, brown cloud? As State agencies struggle to clean up the harmful pollution that hangs over the Phoenix skyline, the recent rash of haboobs stirs up even more trouble. — why won’t the brown cloud just blow away?
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.
The American Lung Association ranked the Valley as the second worst city in the country for year-round particle pollution. A roux of particle pollutants comprise the brown cloud, including PM10 and PM2.5. PM10, aka coarse particulate matter, comes from unstable dirt released into the air by unpaved roads, construction, leaf-blowers and freak dust storms. PM2.5 typically comes from combustion processes, like vehicle exhaust and wood burning.
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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