The Obama administration’s new lower air quality standard for soot probably won’t require new actions to keep the Treasure Valley legal.
The new annual standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from the current 15 micrograms per cubic meter, calculated over three years. The Treasure Valley soot levels was 7.4 micrograms per meter for the period from 2009 through 2011.
Soot, also called pm 2.5, is microscopic particles that are breathed deep into your lungs and can lead to heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks.
When 2012 is added, and 2009 is dropped, it could be higher, said Bruce Louks, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality air quality monitoring manager. That’s because there was so much smoke this year from wildfires.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency has a process to figure into the calculations, an “exceptional event,” like lightning caused fires, Louks said. That likely will keep the Treasure Valley in what the EPA calls “attainment” or meeting the federal air quality standards.
Sinc the 1990s, air pollution levels in the Valley have been very close to exceeding increasingly tougher federal standards for soot pollution. If they do, the entire airshed — both Ada and Canyon counties — will be designated a non-attainment area by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA would then require the state to develop a plan to reduce soot pollution, caused primarily by cars, annually. It would have to include a scientifically defensible model showing that the measures it prescribes will meet the mandate.
If the state doesn’t meet the requirements, federal transportation money could be withheld or reprogrammed to places EPA prefers, such as mass transit. To avoid this the Idaho Legislature pushed Canyon County to develop a vehicle testing program, aimed essentially to get the valley over the hump until changes in air pollution controls on cars, reformulated gasoline and a turnover in the fleet of dirtier cars took place.
The recession and higher gas prices also helped by reducing the amount of drivers on the road. As the economy improves and the population grows, we may push the limits again soon.
But the new EPA standards, which the American Lung Association and other groups said will save an estimated 15,000 lives a year, and the EPA says will have a net benefit ranging from about $3.6 billion to $9 billion a year, won’t hurt our local economy.
Louks said the science doesn't support the argument, but it could be that all the actions taken to improve air quality in the last decade saved us from a regulatory nightmare. It also likely saved lives.