Making good on last year’s threat, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is adding Spokane to the short list of the nation’s worst carbon monoxide polluters.
Spokane, Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, were added today to the EPA’s bad-air list, joining Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Spokane failed to meet the agency’s 1995 deadline for cleaning up its air enough to meet federal standards.
But the “serious” violator designation actually gives Spokane more time.
The new compliance deadline is Dec. 31, 2000, and there are no fines or penalties that come with the EPA’s redesignation. At worst, Spokane eventually could lose federal transportation dollars.
However, local business leaders hate the stigma of a “serious” polluter label, fearing it will hinder economic growth and industry recruitment efforts.
“I don’t buy the premise that this won’t hurt economic development,” said City Councilwoman Roberta Greene.
“Comparing us to Los Angeles just might eliminate some companies that want to locate here,” said Rich Hadley, president of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Jack Geraghty complained that the EPA’s action represents an “unfunded mandate” - a rule that comes with no federal money - that could cost the city millions.
“Major urban areas are up in arms about this,” he said. “We’ve made great strides in Spokane, and we’re still being penalized.”
Anita Frankel, the EPA’s top regional air quality official, broke the news in person to city officials and business leaders at a Thursday meeting in Spokane.
“Frankly, we have no choice” under the Clean Air Act, Frankel said.
The decision was “awkward” for the EPA because Spokane has done a good job of cleaning up its air, Frankel said.
In the ‘70s, Spokane had hundreds of carbon monoxide violations a year, and 20 years later has only a few. Improved catalytic converters on cars and computerized signals that allow for better traffic flow are some of the reasons Spokane’s air is healthier.
But the trouble continues because Spokane is growing, and its geography and climate traps carbon monoxide from cars at ground level during winter air inversions.
Further fine-tuning of Spokane’s air-quality and traffic programs should do the trick, Frankel said.
“We expect you’ll find yourself in attainment before December 2000,” she told city officials.
The Clean Air Act allows only one violation per year of the 9 parts-per-million carbon monoxide standard. The colorless, odorless gas reduces the oxygen that enters the blood, making people lethargic and confused. In massive doses, it can cause unconsciousness and death.
Spokane exceeded the limit four times in 1995; twice in 1996.
City officials have three weeks to go before they know whether Spokane will make it through this year without a violation, said Eric Skelton, Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority director.
Two consecutive “clean” years are required before Spokane can be taken off the bad-air list.
Last year, when the EPA proposed designating the city as a serious violator, business leaders from the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce said it wasn’t based on good science.
They proposed moving the air quality monitor at Third and Washington - at a busy car dealership - that’s reporting the dirtiest air.
The EPA investigated those concerns, which is why the agency delayed making its decision.
“We found nothing to suggest the data weren’t valid. The monitoring stations are reflective of the air pollution levels in this community,” Frankel said.
Local officials are optimistic they can meet the standard before 2000 with a further “tweaking” of Spokane’s clean-air programs.
A plan to do that has been under way for a year, Skelton said.
It includes a motor vehicle inspection program that identifies high-polluting cars; increasing the oxygenation of local gasoline from 2.7 percent to 3.5 percent; a new “Air Watch” program that asks people to carpool or ride the bus on days with high carbon monoxide levels; and $1 million in improved traffic signals.
Other strategies include offering free bus rides on smoggy days and better traffic flow while city crews remove snow.
The two City Council members at Thursday’s meeting had different reactions to Frankel’s news.
“You really didn’t have a choice, although I hate to see this happen in Spokane,” Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers said.
Greene said her husband decided last year not to renew the lease for the air pollution monitor that the state placed at their Empire Ford dealership on Third because of the “horrible publicity” they were getting about being the city’s carbon monoxide hot spot.
The new state monitor was moved across the street.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Better, but still not good enough
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