It’s no longer a matter of waiting for the dust to settle. Dirt roads, vacant lots, construction sites, heavy industry and farms have been spewing asthma-causing particulates into the air at a rate that federal pollution regulators say is unhealthy for residents, and they want it to stop.
The Environmental Protection Agency has put Valley leaders on notice: Reduce the area’s unhealthy particulate levels to federal standards, or face consequences that could include the EPA cutting off federal highway funds to the Valley.
The federal agency also has the authority to take over Maricopa County’s air quality permitting process — a move that could effectively grind economic development to a halt.
Despite those possibilities, some of the politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats responsible for drafting the Valley’s dust cleanup plan for EPA approval say their colleagues aren’t taking the task seriously enough.
County government officials criticized fellow members of the Maricopa Association of Governments last week for opting to exclude three proposed measures that would crack down on dust coming from construction sites — collectively the source of more than half the county’s air quality violations.
“We are very concerned that the actions we took to limit measures occurred too soon,” member Jo Crumbaker of the Maricopa County Air Quality Department said during a MAG advisory group meeting Thursday to discuss the plan. “It is simply premature to pull these measures off the table.”
Robert Kard, Maricopa County Air Quality Department director, said dust violations triggered 55 percent of the $3.7 million in air pollution fines levied by his agency in 2006.
A department statistical analysis concluded that 51 percent of all construction sites in the Valley committed violations, Kard added.
In March, the federal government officially deemed Maricopa County to be in violation of clean-air standards because of its unhealthy levels of dust, an anticipated step that gives Arizona until the end of the year to adopt a plan that likely will impose new requirements on builders and industries such as mining and farming.
The EPA said air quality data from 2004 to 2006 showed dust levels exceeded the federal standard, and as a result, the state failed to meet a Dec. 31, 2006, compliance deadline. The Valley violated federal air quality standards on 19 days in 2005 and 27 days in 2006. The EPA allows just three violations in a three-year period.
Arizona has until the end of this year to submit a plan to reduce the level of large particulate matter, known as PM-10, by 5 percent annually beginning in 2008. Each subsequent year the state fails to meet the federal PM-10 standard, it will have to submit another, more aggressive cleanup plan.
High levels of air particles pose a health threat because they cause breathing disorders, can damage lung tissue and may lead to premature death. The elderly, children and people with asthma and other respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable.
Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Stapley, R-District 2, sent a memo last week to MAG’s Regional Council, made up of Valley mayors, asking that the construction-related measures be placed back on the proposed list of new regulations to be submitted to the EPA. Stapley notes that similar crackdowns were part of successful programs to reduce dust in Nevada and California.
“Maricopa County is very concerned that calculations estimating emission reductions from the current measures on the list may be overly optimistic,” Stapley wrote in the memo, adding that it could take longer than MAG anticipates to see results from its dust-control plan and should therefore add more to the list.
The council chose not to comply with Stapley’s request, but it did leave the door open to the possibility of adding those measures in the future.
To complicate matters, the county officials who criticized MAG members for not proposing enough measures to reduce dust pollution were accused of the same.
For instance, Stapley’s memo drew fire from MAG member Peter Hyde of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, because it also asks MAG to eliminate a requirement that the county post 15 mph speed limits on dirt roads and lower its expectations of the county’s ability to pave dirt roads and police certain dust violations.
“Non-permitted emissions sources . . . are so numerous and the process to address remedies consumes so much time that the County alone can not address these problems,” the memo states.
Hyde said the memo demonstrates a “can’t-do attitude” on Stapley’s part.
“I just don’t like the general attitude that is coming out of this memo,” he said. “It’s way too negative.”
In all, the MAG Regional Council recommended 42 dust-control measures from a proposed list of more than 70. However, the entities that would be responsible for enforcing each new rule must give their approval before a final plan can be submitted to the EPA.
For instance, Maricopa County does not have to approve the measures it would be responsible for implementing, but air quality director Kard said the county will do whatever it takes to ensure the dust-control plan is aggressive enough to satisfy the EPA.
“Highway fund sanctions are real and they’re out there,” he said. “We’re not going to put ourselves in a position that would enact those sanctions.”