EPA: Unhealthy days in cities increase despite other gains

Source: By Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, July 19, 2019

When EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stopped by the White House last week to tout the Trump administration’s environmental record, he was quick to use a familiar talking point: Emissions of a half-dozen key pollutants have plunged by almost three-quarters since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

But while newly released numbers show that overall declines have continued under the Trump administration, they come with a noteworthy asterisk: A key gauge of urban air quality again showed deterioration last year.

For 2018, the number of days that 35 major cities experienced air deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups” spiked almost 11%, rising from 721 days in 2017 to 799, according to EPA’s latest “air trends” report released yesterday.

After hitting a low of 598 days in 2014, the number of such unhealthy air days has climbed in three of the last four years. Last year’s increase was particularly pronounced, although not seen everywhere around the country.

In the notoriously smoggy Los Angeles area, for example, the number of days that landed in that category or worse dropped from 121 to 110; in Salt Lake City, the totals fell from 44 to 37.

But the numbers for 22 other metro areas went in the other direction. Among them was Washington, D.C., where the number of unhealthy days climbed from eight in 2017 to 10 last year. The increase was sharpest for the Las Vegas area, where the respective totals soared from 27 to 48. Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Indianapolis also registered significant percentage jumps in the number of unhealthy days.

The readings are based on ambient air concentrations of ozone and fine particulates, two of the pollutants referenced by Wheeler. Under EPA’s air quality index, sensitive populations encompass children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung diseases.

In the report and an accompanying statement, EPA did not specifically seek to explain the increase in the number of unhealthy days but noted that pollutant concentrations can vary from year to year because of wildfires and weather variations.

But at the American Lung Association, which also looks at air quality trends on an annual basis, Paul Billings viewed climate change as a major underlying factor. Droughts lead to wildfires, which throw off particulates and generate nitrogen oxides, a key ingredient in ozone, Billings, the group’s senior vice president for public policy, said in an interview. Rising temperatures help drive ozone formation. Also in play, Billings said, is a falloff in Clean Air Act enforcement under the Trump administration.

“As these regulatory rollbacks start to take hold, all these factors are coming together,” he said.

In the release, however, EPA said emissions of the six pollutants, which also include lead, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, have all continued to decline since 2016. From 1970 through 2018, releases fell by a combined total of 74%, while the economy grew by 275%, according to the agency. Despite last year’s increase, the number of unhealthy air days was still well below the total of almost 1,200 recorded in 2008.

The data shows that “with sensible policies we can continue to protect and improve our environment without hampering our economy,” acting air chief Anne Idsal said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Idsal assumed that post at the beginning of this month after her predecessor, Bill Wehrum, resigned. Before arriving at the air office earlier this year, she had been administrator of EPA’s Dallas-based Region 6 office.

In a 2017 interview with the Texas Observer soon after taking the earlier job, Idsal had expressed uncertainty about the extent of humans’ impact on climate change. “I think it’s possible that humans have some type of impact on climate change,” she said at the time. “I just don’t know the extent of that.”

On yesterday’s call, an EPA press staffer stopped Idsal from answering a reporter’s question about her current views on that topic, saying that “we’re only going to address questions related to the report and the topic of the day.”