Fast-growing Phoenix, beset by dirty air, targets construction in cleanup plan

Maricopa County has proposed 41 air-clearing measures – from banning leaf blowers to requiring 'dust managers' on job sites.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A new plan to clear the skies in the Phoenix area, which has some of the dirtiest air in the nation, calls for major shifts in the way people here live and do business.

Cozy wood-burning fires? Not a good idea, because of the soot.

Leaf blowers? Verboten, at least on "bad air" days. They kick up dust.

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And on construction sites where more than 50 acres of land will be disturbed, someone there must be the designated "dust manager."

Those are three on a list of 41 measures that may soon be required of businesses and residents in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, and other communities within America's fastest-growing county. More measures may be added in the months ahead, but that's the blueprint as of Wednesday evening, when the regional Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) approved the cleanup plan.

Maricopa County is only the second locale in the US to have the dubious distinction of being listed on the US Environmental Protection Agency's Five Percent Plan – a move that triggered the need for a cleanup plan. The EPA tagged the county at the end of 2006, after pollution from particulates – known to experts as "fugitive dust" – exceeded the emissions standard for two years running. In 2005, the area had 19 days over the federal limit; in 2006, it broke that record with 27 days over the limit.

Under the Five Percent Plan, Maricopa County must cut its particulate emissions by 5 percent a year, until it reaches the federal standard of 150 micrograms of fugitive dust per cubic meter of air, as measured within a 24-hour period. That means 4,594 fewer tons of airborne dust each year until at least 2009.

The plan MAG has put forward concentrates on construction-related activities – for good reason, experts say.

"Construction sites contribute most of the particles into the atmosphere," says Joe Fernando, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe who works on particle dispersion problems. "It is realistic [and] possible to reduce those."

The good news is that California's San Joaquin Valley, the other region to fall under the Five Percent Plan because of particulate matter, has shown that dust-reduction measures can work. Moreover, the topography there resembles that of metropolitan Phoenix – a valley surrounded by mountains that trap the dirty air within.

In 2002, the San Joaquin Valley was required to submit to the EPA a plan to reduce airborne particulates by 5 percent a year, says Jaime Holt, public information administrator in Fresno for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. After finding that the San Joaquin Valley reached its goals in 2003, 2004, and 2005, the EPA in October 2006 said the valley attained standards for particulates.

The district's cleanup program included an intensive public-education campaign through the media, says Ms. Holt. "One of our initial strategies was to regulate fugitive dust – dust kicked up during agricultural or construction operations – like, 30 various things," she says. "On the individual level ... on certain days in winter when the air-quality index is over 150, we prohibit residential wood-burning."

MAG's measures appear to be similar. The top two involve public education and training programs. Some address unpaved roads, unpaved parking lots, and vacant lots where, when the earth is disturbed, dust particles can be carried aloft by the wind. Others address equipment used to move sand and gravel, and how they should operate. Still others deal with the use of all terrain vehicles, leaf blowers, and wood-burning stoves. Moreover, Maricopa County has hired an official involved in San Joaquin Valley's pollution-abatement effort.

A key, though, will be enforcement of any new measures, says Joe Anderson of Arizona State University, an expert on air-quality issues. "One of the biggest problems in [Maricopa] county has been a complete lack of enforcement. It's mostly about the political will to do what's needed."

The area's air-quality plan is still a work in progress. Maricopa County needs to submit to the EPA a comprehensive plan to reduce fugitive dust by the end of the year, and the EPA would have to sign off on it before measures would go into effect.

The stakes are significant. If the county doesn't meet these requirements, it faces sanctions – potentially losing some $1.1 billion in federal highway grants.

The measures MAG approved on Wednesday will now be distributed to local governments within the regional council, such as the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, and others. Those governments have until June 15 to agree to the measures or offer changes.

"Once they approve it, it becomes legally binding," says Kelly Taft, MAG spokeswoman.

If the cities or other local governments offer changes, those will be incorporated by MAG's air-quality technical advisory team, which runs computer models to determine if the measures will decrease airborne particulates to the required level, says Ms. Taft. The bottom line is that the plan MAG offers the EPA in December 2007 must guarantee a 5 percent reduction in particles per year, beginning in 2008.

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