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Northeast Ohio air quality is in nonattainment for fine particulate matter (again) ? What can we do?

Brad Chase  |  10/12/09 @ 11:01am

Northeast Ohio finds itself on an unwanted environmental list ? again.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week released results from 2006 to 2008 air quality monitoring for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), and Northeast Ohio counties including Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Stark, Summit and Portage counties, joined the list of 113 other counties in 30 other regions nationally that do not meet the new standards.  EPA press release.

Since 2000, fine particulate matter pollution nationwide has decreased 18% according to EPA.  The 1997, 65 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 threshold was lowered to 35 micrograms per cubic meter (24-hour average) in 2006.  Despite the documented health effects of fine particulate matter pollution ? increased heart attacks, hospital admissions, asthma, and premature deaths ? the new 2006 standard was still met with resistance, and an even lower threshold recommended by many environmental and health groups was rejected.  See EPA information on particulate matter here.

To be sure, the air in most parts of Northeast Ohio has far less particulate matter, both large and fine, and ground level ozone than in 1997. This is a direct result of cleaner diesel vehicles (e.g., school bus particulate traps, port vehicle retrofits, RTA "clean air" diesel buses) and cleaner automobiles, power plant stack filters, changes in the amount of industry and smokestacks as part of our regional economy, and increased awareness and implementation of policies that prohibit idling, for example.  

However, between 1997 and 2008, while other counties in the Midwest were able to meet the more stringent PM 2.5 standard, Northeast Ohio was not, and remains on the list.  Why?  Have we been doing all we can as a region to meet attainment levels?  Or, have we accepted a victim mentality - that we really have done enough/everything we can, but the EPA is unfair, making the standard "too tough" - even as Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus regions have met the stricter standards?  (See Northeast Ohio PM 2.5 workgroup recommendations)

RTA has in many ways been at the forefront of cleaner burning fuels and buses, introducing CNG and low sulfur diesel fuel, as well as purchasing "clean air buses" since 2002, and recently introducing diesel-hybrid buses on the HealthLine.  Buses that RTA purchased since 2006 have passive particulate matter traps that significantly reduce PM 2.5 and soot.  However, bus purchases made before 2006 (with the same "clean air" logos) contained only mufflers with a dual oxidation catalyst, which don't reduce the same amount of PM 2.5 or soot.  The newest RTA park-and-ride MCI coaches, purchased in 2008, have active particulate matter filters.   

Is this an example of "good enough" and should NOACA (and ultimately the region as whole) have demanded that RTA purchase the cleanest exhaust buses available (best available technology), even if that meant a price premium per bus?  The 2002 buses will in theory be on the road in Northeast Ohio until 2017 - spewing soot and PM.

How much is the "cost" of Northeast Ohio being in non attainment ? in both human health and economic terms?  Can we envision a future where Northeast Ohio meets and exceeds air quality standards?  Do we have the will and resolve to make informed, and perhaps sometimes more expensive upfront investment and policy decisions that pay themselves back multiple times in better community health and a more competitive regional economy?

Sometimes it seems that even "low hanging fruit" or the simple solutions may be escaping us.  States including California, Colorado, Texas and Florida are installing smart signaling systems that improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, as a matter of course.  In Northeast Ohio, it seems that much of our signal prioritization and congestion relief funds go towards new traffic lights on steel mast arms with "improved" signal timing and with recommendations, but not requirements, that projects include energy efficient LED lights.  See GCBL post on related traffic improvements from our transportation regional agenda.

I've personally sat (in a bus and car) at many of these "improved" signals (see West 25th street corridor in Cleveland, for example) at both on and off peak times and idled for an entire cycle to pass before getting a green.  Is this helping us meet particulate matter reduction goals?  Is the upfront cost of leading traffic technology too much for Northeast Ohio to fathom (or are our traffic engineers just more comfortable using existing technology and practices?)  I don't know.

It seems if other areas in the Midwest are able to meet the enhanced PM 2.5 standards, Northeast Ohio should be to meet the standards as well ? even if it means doing things differently, investing in new technologies, mobilizing public support, or perhaps even changing the locations of monitors if they aren't accurately reflecting pollution levels.   

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