What's the grade of your air? Hampshire County gets ‘F’ smog grade, again

Last modified: Friday, May 02, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Hampshire County received another failing smog grade in a new report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association, though a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on cross-border emissions this week could help improve air quality for the Northeast region.

The organization’s State of the Air 2014 report tallied 11 days over a three-year period during which air quality in the county was unhealthy for sensitive groups, notably people with respiratory ailments such as asthma. Ozone season runs from May 1 to Sept. 30 in Massachusetts.

Hampshire County was one of three counties in Massachusetts to earn an F grade for the number of days it experienced high ozone levels, according to the annual report. Nearby, Berkshire County received a B grade and Hampden County a C grade, while data was not collected for Franklin County because air quality monitors do not exist there to track ozone pollution.

The association uses data captured from air quality monitoring stations that are reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and rates air quality using the federal agency’s Air Quality Index.

Hampshire County has not been able to break out of the failing category for smog since the American Lung Association began reporting ozone and particle pollution levels 15 years ago, though air quality has improved considerably here during that time, according to the association’s analyses.

However, the latest State of the Air report found that ozone levels worsened nationally compared to the previous year’s analysis, including in Hampshire County.

“Across the board, ozone pollution was higher,” said Michael Seilback, vice president of public policy and communications at the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “It’s really a combination of locally produced air pollution as well as pollution blown across state borders.”

Air quality worsens when heat and sunlight mix with hydrocarbons like gasoline and solvents, as well as nitrogen oxide emissions, which lead to increased levels of ozone and particle pollution. The latter includes soot, dust, dirt and smoke.

Wind and weather can cause air quality to change from day to day and the Valley’s increased air pollution levels are often connected to air patterns moving up along the Northeast corridor from the Mid-Atlantic region, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which monitors air quality from nearly 30 sites in the commonwealth, including Amherst, Springfield and Ware.

Winds blowing from the Ohio Valley, mid-Atlantic and Appalachian states also send pollutants northeast, and strongly influence ozone levels and air pollution in Massachusetts.

Ruling hailed

Meanwhile, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tuesday reinstated a 2011 federal regulation designed to curb cross-border air pollution.

The EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule requires upwind states to eliminate emissions that contribute significantly to pollution or interfere with air quality standards in other states. Those emissions, primarily from coal-fired plants, include sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which help create ground-level ozone.

In all, 28 states, many in the Midwest, must regulate smog that drifts into neighboring states and increases its air pollution.

Massachusetts was one of many Northeast states that filed briefs in support of the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision, arguing that an earlier appeals court ruling that overturned the rule was inconsistent with the Clean Air Act and other air pollution decisions made by the court.

In Tuesday’s opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court stated, “As the pollution travels out of state, upwind states are relieved of the associated costs. Those costs are borne instead by the downwind states, whose ability to achieve and maintain satisfactory air quality is hampered by the steady stream of infiltrating pollution.”

The court ruled that the EPA must account for the “vagaries of the wind” in crafting a solution to the problem of interstate air pollution. Quoting from the Bible, Ginsburg wrote, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley described the ruling as a victory for public health and the environment in a statement Tuesday.

“The Cross State Air Pollution Rule limits the hazardous pollution that some states contribute to their downwind neighbors at unreasonable levels,” Coakley said. “We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold this rule to regulate cross-state emissions and protect the public today and in the future.”

DEP spokesman Ed Coletta said the agency was pleased with the decision, though it will be hard to quantify what impact it has on Massachusetts.

“It will definitely help, because it will obviously require upwind states and the Midwest to put in emissions controls that we already require in Massachusetts and that the other New England states require,” he said. “We’ve advocated for quite a while in Massachusetts that there should be national standards.”

The American Lung Association had also filed a brief in support of the cross-border air pollution regulations, which the coal industry had lobbied against.

“We think it’s a common-sense clean air safeguard,” Seilback said. “It’s right in line with our report. The pollution coming out of these states shouldn’t be transported over to the Northeast where we are forced to deal with secondhand smog.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

State of the Air


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