Winter Air Quality

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Get an update on winter air quality in Maricopa County with Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director Eric Massey and Maricopa County Air Quality director Bill Wiley.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Winter is approaching, and for the Phoenix area, that means air pollution issues. Valley residents are likely to again be faced with concerns over temperature inversions and bans on wood-burning fireplaces. Here to talk about regional winter-air conditions is Eric Massey, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality's Air Quality Division, and Bill Wiley, director of the Maricopa County Air Quality Department. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us.

Eric Massey: Thanks for having us.

Ted Simons: What are -- how are we doing? How's air quality in the Valley heading into winter? How's it looking?

Eric Massey: As we head into winter, we are actually moving into one of the worst air pollution times of the season for us, largely because of the pollution we're dealing with and the concentrations that we see, specifically what we would call pm2.5, more commonly referred to as soot, or smoke levels. And what we're seeing is really high concentrations of really harmful pollutants that can actually penetrate past your lungs and into your bloodstream, creating real problems for specifically sensitive people in general but the overall population as a whole.

Ted Simons: I want to get a little bit deeper there, as far as particulates but I know the feds are watching us, and we've got some concerns on those timelines. What has to be done to meet federal standards?

Bill Wiley: Well, we've got to stay below a federal standard. They passed health standards and all states across the country have to meet them and that's why we're here today is because we're very, very close to exceeding those standards, which then would require us to put a plan in place and a bunch of new controls. We're trying to have a voluntary effort to get people to restrict their activity.

Ted Simons: Is there a time table? Basically once it reaches that level, that's the time table for the plan?

Bill Wiley: Once we exceed the standard, don't meet the standard, then the E.P.A. will say you're not meeting the standard and they'll give us three years to come up with a plan but that requires rules, that will require all kinds of new controls, even on sources that aren't causing the problem.

Ted Simons: Talk more about that. What kind of regulations would we likely be facing if that were to occur?

Eric Massey: The kinds of regulations that we would be looking at is anything that generates the very fine particles from a source of combustion, so the trucking industry, diesel smoke could be at risk of having to do additional controls. You know, those particular industries, where burning is a real important function of the actual business itself, could be facing additional controls in addition to looking at what we can be doing about the residential aspect.

Ted Simons: So staying below the threshold is key here. You mentioned residential aspects, you mentioned soot. What are particulates? We hear about particulates and the levels there. Define particulates.

Eric Massey: So particulates in the concept of what E.P.A. regulates is two different things. One is pm10, which we'll call dust, the materials that you see out of the earth and blows around in the desert and off of disturbed soils and other manmade types of activities. The other one that we deal with is pm2.5, really soot. It's a product of combustion, so think of it really as smoke level. Pm10 is seven times smaller than a human hair and pm2.5 is 30 times smaller than a human hair.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned residential concerns. Woodburning fire places doesn't seem like it would be that big of a deal. It's a big deal, isn't it?

Bill Wiley: It's a big deal in the winter, especially when we have inversion conditions. You have the ceiling come down and the pollution can't escape the valley and you have 300,000 fireplaces emitting pollution at the same time with no place for it to go. And that's why we have these very, very high pollution levels during these winter periods.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned a temperature inversion, we see that a lot, that's something you can see when you're on the freeway, you go yuck. Explain the temperature inversion.

Bill Wiley: Temperature inversion is when the air above is warmer so the smoke and the pollution rises, and then it stops because it typically will not go past that warmer layer. So it just sits there and it builds up and it builds up and it gets very unhealthy.

Ted Simons: And it looks bad. Is it as bad as it looks?

Eric Massey: Usually, it's worse than what it looks. Those are some of the conditions we run into. I think that the point for us, too, is that visibly, the worst days that we see and the worst days that we see on our monitors are some of our most significant holidays, like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's day.

Ted Simons: Which explains why we see these alerts and conditions at unacceptable levels on days that everyone's going I'm home, I'm not driving, nothing's going on but if your fireplace is going, that's a factor.

Bill Wiley: That's right, that's right. And it's interesting because you typically don't have the business activities going on on those days where you have the highest levels but we know it's from fireplaces.

Ted Simons: What's being done to address these issues, to keep us under the threshold?

Eric Massey: Well, the first thing that we're doing right now as a department is we're putting out a region-wide forecast. As part of our forecast we're trying to tell people what's happening in the upcoming days, usually 3 to 5 days out. The concept is to give people the opportunity to number one decide what their behavior is going to be over that time period in terms of burning, being able to predict whether or not there will be a no-burn day, but the better aspect is empowering people to make decisions on how they can protect their own public health. If you know a day's going to be bad in advance, schedule your activities such that you're not out and about in that air quality during that particular day.

Ted Simons: Anything else going on?

Bill Wiley: We actually have some rules that are in place and a county ordinance in place on no-burn days. So when we call a no burn day, based on the forecast from ADEQ, I actually send inspectors out. And you can get a warning letter to a $250 fine as a home-owner, or businesses can go $200 and go up substantially higher than that if you're caught burning on a no burn day. There are some rules in place. They'll go substantially higher if you didn't meet the standards that the E.P.A.'s required us to plan.

Ted Simons: You hit that threshold and all bets are off and you think you've got it bad now, wait until that happens. People do have it bad now as far as the health concerns. Do we see added admissions in hospitals? Do we see hard facts and figures when we have these bad days?

Eric Massey: We do and that is one of the key selling points of our campaign. But anecdotally, I've spent time with my niece in the hospital on a smoke-filled night. I'm sure many other people have spent time with their loved ones in a hospital room waiting to see a respiratory therapist or work through those particular issues, you see it in the hard data as well as having anecdotal evidence.

Ted Simons: No burn days. Anything else you want to emphasize to folks to keep the levels down?

Bill Wiley: The key thing is pay attention to the no burn days. There are other things you can do on no burn days. I mean, there are gas fireplaces, there are electric fireplaces, there's a great video that you can download and watch, you can burn candles, you can have incense, a lot of other kinds of activities you can do. I think a key point here, we're only asking people to take action on the no burn days. We don't issue those every day of the month and, in fact, what we found is that two or three days before the holiday, we typically don't have problems. It seems to be a cultural event, not necessarily something for heat.

Ted Simons: And again you will issue these in advance knowing how the weather patterns are changing and developing?

Eric Massey: That's exactly right. We have meteorologists on forecast that are looking at how the weather's going to impact the concentrations, they're looking at what our monitoring network is telling us what pollution levels look like. We're doing our best to predict, and we have pretty good predictions about what's going to happen over the course of the next few days so we'll call those no burn days or health watches or high-pollution advisories.

Ted Simons: Let's hope the information gets out there. Let's hope we can clean up the air a little bit here, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, want to make sure your niece gets out there and has some fun. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

Eric Massey:Director, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality;Bill Wiley:Director, Maricopa County Air Quality;

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