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EPA approves Valley’s dust pollution plan

desert-dust-620After a decades-long struggle over the best way to confront dust pollution in metro Phoenix, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it has approved the state’s air quality plan for the Valley, officers from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality confirmed.

That plan seeks to reduce dust pollution by at least five percent each year between 2007 and 2012.

“Today’s announcement is 43 years in the making,” Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Denny Barney said in a news release, adding that the process had been “exceptionally difficult.”

At the core of the tug-and-pull between the US EPA is a dust pollutant called PM-10, which can penetrate the lungs and has been linked to respiratory problems, including asthma attacks among children. The discussion on PM-10 is only one of several air quality issues facing Arizona, as portions of Pinal County had also struggled to control another pollutant, the fine particles called PM-2.5.

For decades, the state had failed to comply with air quality standards mandated by the U.S. Clean Air Act partly because of high-wind days, when thunderstorms send giant dust storms to engulf the below. State officers struggled to persuade federal regulators that there is little Arizona could do to control, much more prevent, pollution that is caused by high winds.

Potentially at stake in the PM-10 debate was hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transportation funding, which the state could eventually have lost if it failed to comply with the Clean Air Act. In 2007, Arizona submitted a plan, but the EPA indicated it would partially reject it, compelling the state to withdraw that proposal. In May 2012, Arizona submitted a revised plan.

The breakthrough occurred last year, when the EPA concurred that there was nothing Arizona could do to prevent air pollution that was caused by a series of dust storms  in 2011.

The EPA agreed with Arizona’s plea to not count those high-wind days in determining the Valley’s air quality, which paved the way for the EPA to propose the approval of Arizona’s five-percent plan in January.

The plan is the result of work among ADEQ, Maricopa County, Maricopa Association of Governments, and other stakeholders. Local environmental quality officers also consulted with the EPA throughout the process.

“It is the culmination of years of hard work and collaboration by many stakeholders,” said MAG Chair Michael LeVault, who is the mayor of Youngtown.

But the work is never really over, observed ADEQ Director Henry Darwin. “The next step is to begin work on a maintenance plan to ensure that we will continue to benefit from the air quality improvements gained over the past quarter century,” he said.

Eric Massey, director of ADEQ air quality division, acknowledged that pollution remains a problem during high-wind days, but the state isn’t ignoring the situation.

Massey said his agency, for example, is hunkering down to provide five-day forecasts to alert the public, especially families with adults and children who are vulnerable to air pollution, if there is a risk of high winds, which predictably bring in dust.

“Generally, we have a pretty good sense of, hey, if the wind comes from this direction, which means higher concentrations [of dust], you should edge it up,” Massey said.

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