Vegas area poised to get EPA clean-air designation

AP News
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Posted: Oct 04, 2014 4:23 PM

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A 21-year push to limit dust pollution in and around Las Vegas has the federal Environmental Protection Agency poised to give the region a clean bill of health.

The EPA formally notified Clark County last month that it will be reclassified as meeting standards for airborne dust particles small enough to be inhaled, known as PM-10. The declaration is expected to become official when it is published in the federal EPA register later this month, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1BDZmrP ).

County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak issued a statement Wednesday calling the reclassification a historic moment and significant victory for the county.

The EPA designated metropolitan Las Vegas a serious non-attainment area for PM-10 pollution in 1993. The label could have cost the state millions of dollars in federal highway funds and prompted a federal takeover of local clean-air programs.

But county officials helped reduce dust levels through tighter regulations, a permit and inspection program at construction sites, a dust-complaint hotline and a public education campaign with the memorable tagline, "Don't be a dusthole."

They were also helped by a sharp decline in construction after the collapse of the housing market about eight years ago, though most contractors already were taking steps to control dust when the downturn hit, said Mike Sword, planning manager for the county Department of Air Quality.

Most local PM-10 is caused by windblown dust from construction sites, travel on dirt roads and disturbance of the desert's natural crust on vacant land. Officials say fine particles get into people's lungs, where they aggravate health problems such as heart and pulmonary conditions. The very young and very old are among the most susceptible to the effects.

Sword said millions of dollars were spent during the past 20 years to hire enforcement staff, inspect work sites, pave roads and produce public-service announcements.

Scientific studies were funded to determine how much wind it takes to create dust in the undisturbed desert and to test soil-stabilization methods. Construction companies were fined $100,000 or more for violating dust restrictions.

As a result, the valley went from experiencing as many as 50 days a year with dust levels in excess of federal standards to averaging only about one dusty day a year during the past six years or so, Sword said.

"It's been a huge effort," he said. "The biggest thing the community got out of this was better quality of life."

This marks the first time in decades that Las Vegas air quality has met all federal pollution standards.

The EPA previously classified the valley as a non-attainment area for carbon monoxide and ozone, but both pollutants are now within allowable limits.

Sword said he expects the EPA will adopt a new standard for ozone pollution in coming years that could take years more to meet.

"That was the biggest complaint when we were designated (for dust pollution): 'We live in a desert; what do you expect?' " Sword said. "But we achieved compliance. Ozone will be a similar challenge, but we'll figure it out."

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Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com