Spokane County’s air agency has avoided what many scientists say is the most important air pollution problem facing the globe.
That’s largely because state and federal pollution laws the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority enforces don’t regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.
It’s also because its five-member board hasn’t been a big believer in society’s effects on climate change.
But a shift in SCAPCA board membership and the U.S. Supreme Court decision last week that says greenhouse gases are subject to federal regulation could signal a change.
A year ago, the SCAPCA board shot down a request from the interim director of the agency to send a letter to Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession asking him to consider joining an initiative to fight global warming.
Then last summer the board replaced the interim director with Bill Dameworth, who said after his hiring that the evidence of society’s effects on global warming isn’t strong enough to prove a link.
Since then, however, two new members have joined the body, creating a majority that believes human activity is a significant factor in climate change. They join Jeff Corkill, the Eastern Washington University chemistry professor who was the lone member to argue in favor of sending the letter.
New SCAPCA member County Commissioner Bonnie Mager sent her own letter to Hession urging him to join the global warming fight when she led the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County.
“I would be glad to see SCAPCA broaden their scope,” Mager said. The evidence “is probably as clear as saying cigarettes contribute to cancer in many people.”
The other new member, Melissa Ahern, a Washington State University-Spokane health policy and administration associate professor, also is a proponent of efforts to fight the warming trend by promoting energy efficient building, mass transit systems and reduced fossil fuel usage.
“It will take a lot of work by a lot of people at a lot of levels to reverse the inertia,” she said.
Corkill supports adding greenhouse gas reduction efforts to SCAPCA’s education program – something that wouldn’t have been possible under the old board, he said. For instance, the public needs to understand that driving large SUVs to work contributes to the problem, he said.
It’s unclear how the court decision will impact SCAPCA regulations. The ruling allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. If that happens, SCAPCA is the local group that oversees EPA rules.
But Dameworth said the Supreme Court decision could take a while to affect local air agencies, and it may not at all because the clearest way to reduce greenhouse gases is to limit car emissions. SCAPCA is charged with regulating stationary sources, like the air coming from smokestacks – not vehicles, he said. The director noted that coal power plants, another large source of carbon dioxide, don’t exist in the area.
“The ruling just says that the EPA has the power to regulate carbon dioxide if they wish too,” Dameworth said. “This isn’t a mandate.”
Corkill agreed that SCAPCA’s regulations aren’t likely to change as a result of any greenhouse rules that might be created by the EPA. He and Dameworth noted, however, that attempts to reduce particulate matter and ozone will help lower greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s all tied together,” Corkill said.
Spokane County barely meets new standards on particulate matter and likely would not meet lower proposed standards on ozone. Dameworth said SCAPCA decided to add carbon dioxide to an inventory it is conducting to determine where pollutants are coming from – even though the agency is not required to monitor the compound.
“As long as we are doing the work, we might as well collect the data,” Dameworth said. “You need data before you can start going around accusing people of being part of the problem.”
If the county breaks ozone or particulate matter standards, SCAPCA will be required to implement a plan to meet the new goals, much like it did in the 1990s when the county was violating carbon monoxide requirements.
Dameworth declined this week to say if his stance on global warming has changed since he was hired. Board member Matthew Pederson, the mayor of Airway Heights, also declined to give his opinion on the issue. That leaves Spokane Valley City Councilman Mike DeVleming as the only SCAPCA board member willing to say he doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to prove a link between global warming and human activity.
“Whether our personal feelings fall on one side or the other, SCAPCA cannot influence at a local level what the overall federal and global position on global warming is,” Pederson said.