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Dirty air, weak enforcement hurt Arizona during COVID-19

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In the middle of any crisis, Arizonans expect our leaders to use every tool at their disposal to do what is best for our communities. But as the coronavirus pandemic impacts all Arizonans, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is taking quite an opposite approach, using our nation’s efforts to combat COVID-19 as an excuse to issue an unprecedented suspension of its enforcement of environmental safeguards and continuing its rollback of important standards.

Right now is the worst time to relax standards and the enforcement of these vital protections. A recent national study used data from more than 3,000 counties and determined that air with higher levels of particulate pollution, including soot, dust, smoke, and other air toxins, is associated with higher death rates from this dangerous virus. To be clear, unchecked air pollution will only exacerbate the severity of COVID-19.

Instead of protecting Arizonans, who are already subject to poor air quality, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is abdicating his basic responsibility. The Phoenix metro area has significant air quality issues, ranking seventh worst for ozone pollution and annual particle pollution among cities across America, per the recently released American Lung Association “2020 State of the Air” report. Tucson also faces challenges – in 2018, its air pollution violated federal ozone standards for the first time. People in Yuma and Pinal County are also significantly affected by unhealthful air.

Sandy Bahr

Sandy Bahr

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s enforcement of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws locally is also at issue as it has reserved fines and other penalties for only the most severe cases. Take Johnson Utilities, for example, which was sued by ADEQ in 2019 for $100 million in penalties over its water-quality violations. This is despite the fact that the company has been the most cited utility by the state since 2017, with more than 300 complaints filed.

Further, a lack of enforcement puts the very health of our most marginalized communities at risk. Communities of color are more likely to live near pollution sources, and bear more of the burden of poor air quality. In Phoenix, ozone-related pollution disproportionately impacts low-income areas. With lax enforcement, those most vulnerable stand to lose even more.

Reducing pollution in our communities must be a high priority. I have friends in my Phoenix neighborhood who have asthma and other respiratory issues and I’ve seen first-hand how poor air quality makes that worse, plus I know it takes years off our lives. That is why I have fought to reduce dangerous ozone and particulate pollution and improve air quality, so we all have healthy air to breathe. Now, with data linking air pollution to increased susceptibility to COVID-19 complications, there is added importance of this work, as well as heightened concern for those who are most at risk and their loved ones. In the middle of a public health crisis, our leaders need to stand with us in this fight for cleaner air.

As the EPA walks off the field entirely, our federal representatives must speak out against these dangerous actions. I am asking our representatives in Congress and Senators Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema to hold the Trump administration accountable for failing to follow the science and protect our health and environment. In the middle of this life-threatening outbreak, Arizona needs our leaders to do just that: lead.

Sandy Bahr is director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon chapter.

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