fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

County gets an F for foul air quality

A report on air quality across the nation gave Jackson County a failing grade for having too many days with unhealthy levels of tiny particles in its air.

The American Lung Association's State of the Air report gave the county an "F" for short-term particulate pollution, although it received a grade of "Pass" for year-round levels of particulate pollution.

The report, based on 2006-08 data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also awarded the county a "C" for the number of days ozone levels reached unhealthy levels.

Ozone and fine-particle pollution are the two biggest air pollution threats in the United States, the lung association reported. About 24 million people live in 18 counties with unhealthy levels of ozone, short-term and year-round particle pollution, the report said.

Jackson County's "F" is the result of having 10 days in the three-year reporting period when particulate pollution reached a level that is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, also known as the "orange" level on the air-quality index.

Having orange days doesn't necessarily push a community out of compliance with federal standards, explained Tom Peterson, an environmental engineer with the Department of Environmental Quality's local office dealing with air quality.

"We comply with the national ambient air quality standards of the EPA," he said.

The county's passing grade for year-round particle pollution reflects that compliance.

In order to fairly account for "unusual circumstances" such as wildfires, government air-quality monitors exclude some peaks in pollution levels, Peterson said. The federal regulations also allow communities to dip into unhealthy levels of pollution up to 2 percent of the time, or 21 days over three years, before being in violation.

The lung association didn't exclude data and called for allowing lapses only 1 percent of the time, or about 10 days over three years. It claimed the tighter limits are "a more appropriate standard that is intended to protect the public from short-term spikes in pollution."

"It's confusing, to say the least," Peterson said of the various criteria and reports.

However, he said they all have value.

Jackson Bauers, manager of Jackson County Department of Health and Human Services' environmental health division, agreed.

"My opinion is that when the American Lung Association does a report like this, it does make people ask why we have a failing grade," Bauers said. "It raises awareness and that's a good thing."

He said Jackson County has a long history of dealing with tiny particles of pollution. That's why vehicles here undergo emission tests and open burning is prohibited in the valley during the winter when temperature inversions can trap pollutants. Wood-burning advisories can limit the use of woodstoves, too.

"Those (requirements) are all trying to control particulates where we can," he said.

Bauers said that ongoing work, including close cooperation with DEQ and the National Weather Service to predict and try to stop emerging air quality problems in the winter, continues to help protect the air in Jackson County.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.