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Treasure Valley escapes pollution black cloud

Joe Kolman
The Idaho Statesman

The Environmental Protection Agency Thursday didn’t include the Treasure Valley among the nation´s worst ozone-polluted communities.

But local air quality officials say that doesn´t mean we should breathe easy.

“We´re right on the cusp,” said Jim Werntz, director of the EPA office in Idaho. The Treasure Valley, along with Medford, Ore., and Spokane, Wash., are communities where ozone pollution is a growing concern, he said.

The EPA named areas that do not meet, or attain, clean air standards. So called “non-attainment” areas must come up with federally approved plans to clean up the air. Idaho officials have been touting ways to reduce pollution in an effort to avoid federal sanctions that could shut the door on road and highway construction and limit business expansion.

Ozone is produced by paint and gasoline vapors combining at ground levels with nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel burning. Heat and sunlight turn it into smog — making summer the prime time for this type of pollution. However, the ozone level made for less-than-good air quality already one day this April.

Business leaders and others have said being labeled “non-attainment” can be both a perceived and real deterrent to industries looking to move to the Treasure Valley. The tag essentially means polluted. But it also means stricter industrial permits for new businesses or modified operations.

There are also health effects to ozone pollution. It can irritate lungs, causing inflammation like a sunburn. People with respiratory problems are more at risk, but repeated exposure can cause problems for anyone, including permanent lung damage.

Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality released a summertime response plan, detailing measures residents can take when ozone levels start to soar.

“Every citizen in the Treasure Valley is impacted by ozone,” Werntz said, “and every citizen should be part of the solution.”

The idea is to avoid spikes in pollution levels, because the EPA classifies non-attainment areas based on a rolling three-year average of the fourth highest level.

For example, over the last three years the fourth-highest ozone readings in the Treasure Valley have been 73, 81 and 76 parts per billion, for an average of 76.6 parts per billion.

The federal standard is 80; however anything below 85 is rounded down to 80.

To violate the federal standard after this summer, the Treasure Valley´s reading would have to be 101 or higher. That is unlikely, officials say, considering the highest reading has been 88 parts per billion.

But as the valley´s population continues to grow, officials say the number of cars also will increase, thereby putting more pollution into the air.

For example, if over a three-year period, the valley has readings of 83, 85 and 87 — the federal standard would be exceeded.

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