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Regional Air Quality
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This Discussion Guide is part of Community Conversations at FOCUS St. Louis.  It is meant to initiate civil discourse around the policies that affect the St. Louis region; to hear each other’s perspective. As is the case with all public policies, this issue is complex and multi-faceted, with many stakeholders. Please keep this in mind as you discuss our region's air quality in your community.  

Regional Air Quality
 
Do we have a reason to worry about air quality in the St. Louis region? In August of 2011, the State of Missouri cut funding for local air pollution programs in the state's biggest cities.  As part of an effort to balance the state budget in June, 2011, Governor Jay Nixon vetoed state funding for local air pollution control programs in St. Louis City and County, Kansas City and Springfield. The cuts were estimated to save $1.2 million in the 2011- 2012 fiscal year and $1.7 million in the current (2012-13) fiscal year.  Some fear the cuts could make it harder for the St. Louis region to meet federal clean-air standards, and that it will come at a steep cost — unhealthy air.

National air quality standards have been in flux in recent years. In September 2011, President Obama rejected a new standard for ground-level ozone proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), deciding instead to keep the 2008 standard that was in place. The President felt tougher standards would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress. But in December 2011, it was announced that global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, rising 5.9 percent.  As a result, President Obama announced new rules requiring power plants to sharply reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants, affecting coal burning power plants in both Missouri and Illinois.

Background:

The City of St. Louis traces the roots of its air pollution program back to the 1930s when black coal smoke still enveloped the city. While today's air problems are not as visible, they still exist, affecting the lives of thousands of residents who suffer from asthma and other upper respiratory diseases.  The FOCUS St. Louis Environmental Sustainability Roadmap published in 2009 states that while the region’s air quality had steadily improved over the last 15 years, St. Louis still experienced an average of 13 days per year where ozone measurements exceeded the health-based standard, at the time ranking sixth, tied with Cleveland.  In fact, the St. Louis region over the past decade has consistently ranked in the top ten cities for asthma risk.

The area has been working for years to meet federal air standards. The St. Louis region was designated in 1992 by the Environmental Protection Agency as a moderate "non-attainment” area for ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. However, the air quality in the region has improved somewhat, and in 2012, the region was re-designated as a marginal non-attainment area, based on the current 2008 standard.

Note: Every five years, the federal EPA reviews air quality standards. Based on health studies, the standards tend to become more restrictive. Thus, while air quality is substantially better today than it was in 1990, the standards have become more strict. In part for this reason, St. Louis has not been able to achieve "attainment” of air quality standards since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

In 2011, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources decided not to fund the St. Louis City and the St. Louis County Air Pollution Control Programs. Instead DNR is doing the work itself, believing that it can fulfill the responsibilities of the local programs at significant cost savings. According to an August 19, 2011 Post Dispatch article, DNR officials are confident they can do the same job with less money.  The same article points out that City and county health directors and staff of local air agencies are not as confident.  They are not concerned about the quality of DNR's work. It's a numbers game, they say, and there's no way the state can displace local air agencies without adversely affecting air quality and public health. They see potential consequences such as permit delays, expired permits and less frequent air monitoring — all of which contribute to dirtier air. And complaints about open burning or excessive dust could take longer to handle, if they get handled at all.  Air-quality advocates such as the St. Louis Clean Air Partnership are also concerned. What’s at stake is the quality of the air we breathe, and the health of the public, especially those suffering with asthma and related ailments.

Who else is involved with this issue?

Aside from the Missouri and Illinois Departments of Natural Resources, the St. Louis Clean Air Partnership and the American Lung Association have played a major role to ensure that the St. Louis region has clean air.  The Sierra Club of Eastern Missouri and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency have also worked to improve air quality in the region.

Three Possible Perspectives:
 
Person A is deeply concerned about the funding cuts and believes there is nothing more important than clean air. Some areas of St. Louis are estimated to have 15-20% of children who suffer from asthma, and up to 50% of children experience some type of symptoms relating to asthma. We need to make this a regional priority for everyone, especially our children.

Person B believes there should be an acceptable middle ground on regulations to monitor air quality, believing that too much regulation would harm the economy, but also knowing that some regulation is necessary.

Person C believes the funding cuts were justified considering the state of the economy.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Which of the three people in this scenario do you most closely align with A, B. or C?  Why?
  2. What alternatives are there to DNR monitoring?
  3. Should the region be able to deal with air quality without state/federal intervention or assistance?  (This seems like an important question as budget woes are likely to be a long-term problem.)
  4. What avenues are available to make sure the DNR maintains the work formerly done by local agencies?
  5. Should the St. Louis region make certain air quality stays at healthy levels with increased levels of carbon dioxide, tougher restrictions on power plants and budget cuts for local air pollution programs?
Links for further reading:
  1. August 19, 2011 E-Missourian.com article: Big Cuts for Missouri's Local Pollution Control.
  2. August 19, 2011 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Missouri's local air pollution control programs lose funding.
  3. December 5, 2011 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Carbon emissions rose of 5.9 percent in 2010.
  4. December 22, 2011 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Missouri, other coal states in crosshairs of EPA mercury rule.
  5. December 22, 2011 St. Louis Beacon article: New pollution rules will have major impact on Missouri, Illinois power plants.
  6. The St. Louis Clean Air Partnership web site.
  7. The Missouri Department of Natural Resource’s Air Pollution Control website.
  8. A history of air quality in the St. Louis region from the East West Gateway Coordinating Council.
  9. The FOCUS St. Louis Environmental Sustainability Roadmap.
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