Air quality rating up in the air

By From page A1 | April 21, 2014

After years of study and documentation and plan preparation, El Dorado County has joined with its fellow air districts of the Sacramento Region in seeking to overturn a former failing grade as part of the “Sacramento Federal Nonattainment Area (SFNA).” In its simplest concept, the air used to be pretty bad and now it’s better throughout the region. Mostly, but as it turned out, mostly wasn’t good enough.

Sitting as the Board of Directors for the El Dorado County Air Quality Management District in mid-December, the county Board of Supervisors passed a multi-phase resolution that eventually would be joined with other similar regional actions. All were forwarded to the California Air Resources Board for later submittal to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Known as the “PM2.5 Implementation/Maintenance Plan and Re-Designation Request for El Dorado County,” the board resolution matched those passed by the other members of the SFNA — the counties of Sacramento, Solano, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado. The non-attainment designation applied countywide for Sacramento and Solano but only to portions of the other three.

The negative, that is “non-attainment” designation, goes back to air quality data collected between 2006 and 2008. “Based on air quality data from 2011 and 2012, the EPA determined that the SFNA had attained the PM2.5 standard on Aug. 14, 2013,” according to documents prepared by the county’s Air Quality Management District. PM2.5 is the technical term for “fine particulate matter.” They are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated.

The 2.5 figure describes a particle that is two-and-a-half microns or less in width. There are 25,000 microns to the inch. The largest particles in this category are about 30 times smaller than a human hair. “The smaller particles are so small that several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence,” according to the New York State Department of Health.

Department documents note that Sacramento’s Metropolitan Air Quality Management District has contributed significantly to the improved air quality by prohibiting wood burning, both interior and exterior, when poor air quality is forecast. El Dorado County does not have a similar rule, “and the plan showed no new control measures are required to attain the PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standard.”

Fine particulate matter outside is primarily caused by emissions from motor vehicles, construction equipment, locomotive exhaust and commercial activities that might involve burning of fuels such as wood, coal or oil. Natural sources include forest or grass fires. Chemical reactions in the atmosphere from gases emitted by sources such as power plants are noted to be easily wind-borne and may impact areas many miles away from the source.

Inside, tobacco smoke, frying and broiling smoke and the smoke from burning of lamps or candles produce PM2.5. Fireplaces and fuel-burning heaters also contribute to particulate matter in the air.

The board resolution highlighted a number of specific steps the EPA must follow in order to complete the re-designation. Those steps apply not only to the county but to the region and the state as a whole. The federal agency must determine that “the improvement in air quality is due to permanent enforceable reductions in emissions” and that the Maintenance Plan will continue to “attain” (acceptable levels of PM2.5) for 10 years.

Health risks from PM2.5 run the gamut from irritating to life-threatening. Because of their small size, particles can travel deep into the respiratory system and lodge in the lungs. Short-term effects include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat as well as shortness of breath. The effects can be much more serious to people with asthma and heart disease.

“Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. People with breathing and heart problems, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to PM2.5,” a New York State Department of Health report said.

The optimism growing since last summer turned into a wheeze through the autumn, but it had become a hacking cough by early January. Results from the final measurement of the year, Dec. 31, were good everywhere in the region except one Sacramento monitoring station. That chronic low achiever dragged down the rest of the  region with its continued poor results.

“While the air in El Dorado County continues to meet the federal standards, the monitoring station in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights has consistently registered unacceptable levels of PM2.5 and therefore the region as a whole may fall short of its plan implementation,” Dave Johnston, the county’s air quality control officer, said back in early January.

Counting back from mid-December when the Mountain Democrat first received information about the possible redesignation, Johnston noted that during the previous months, the weather in the SFNA had not been cooperative nor conducive to improved air quality. Citing a lack of storms, stagnant weather and wood-burning appliances as contributors, concern began to grow that the plan may not be able to maintain the levels of PM2.5 required to remove the non-attainment designation.

Sacramento is not the only area experiencing “poor air weather.” The San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District and Valley Air District issued a Public Service Announcement on Dec. 18, 2013.

“Poor air quality Valley-wide continues to persist as the air basin lingers under a high-pressure system that has kept emissions from escaping,” the statement reads in part. “This is an unusual, persistent atmospheric condition that has kept levels of particulates in the ‘Unhealthy’ and ‘Very Unhealthy’ ranges for several days, and created difficult health conditions for many residents,” said Jaime Holt, the district’s chief communications officer.

For the above and other reasons, SFNA officials are hoping the EPA will agree to treat data from 2013 as “anomalous” and due to the drought. If 2014 figures come in as acceptable, the federal agency might reconsider and move toward the redesignation.

“If successful, we can submit the plan in 2015 which will give EPA until 2017 to act.  If EPA approves the plan in 2017, we will need to show continued attainment for 10 years after (to 2027). In short, it’s unlikely the SFNA will be redesignated to attainment before 2017,” Adam Baughman told the the Mountain Democrat late last month. Baughman is an Air Quality Engineer with the county’s  air quality management district. Citing a statement from the Sacramento offices, Baughman said 2013 was actually better than 2011 and could be used to show significant improvement. The 2012 year was “a very good year,” the statement noted.

In effect, if the region shows “attainment” throughout 2014, the EPA may be convinced to throw out the 2013 data as indeed “anomalous.”

“EPA has said they will overlook 2013 if 2014 is in attainment. It was literally on the last day of 2013 that threw us out and brought the average up over the threshold.  There was even some talk about this being attributed to the residual PM from the fireworks in Old Town Sac since they had a full show at 9 p.m. that night, and because of that, trying to make an argument that we would have made attainment were it not for that. This course of action was quickly abandoned because there’s simply no way to prove it,” Baughman wrote.

Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected] Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.

Chris Daley

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