City air pollution hit record levels due to summer, cars

Maggie Hessel-Mial

After what officials are calling the worst summer for air pollution in recent history, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is searching for solutions.

Several days of high ozone levels this summer prompted air quality warnings and advisements for residents to stay indoors during peak hours of heat. MPCA officials hope to deter a problem that could impose federal regulations if it continues unabated.

“This has gotten us to the point where we’re close enough to violating the standards, and it’s not worth going there,” said David Thornton, MPCA planning and policy manager.

High temperatures and increased emissions from automobiles, factories and some businesses combine to create a higher level of ozone in the air, which can harm human health, Thornton said.

Ozone levels in the atmosphere, measured in parts per billion, are studied and averaged over both an hour’s time and eight hours’ time throughout the year. If they are consistently above the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for three years in a row, the area is officially in violation.

“Emissions here are high enough that with the right conditions we could reach that level,” he said.

The unusually high temperatures during the recent summer months led to extremely high levels of ozone, readings that haven’t been seen since the mid-’90s.

“If the weather in the next two summers is similar to this summer there is a possibility that the air quality will reach above these standards,” said Walker Smith, MPCA public information officer.

If air quality dips below these standards, additional emission requirements on factories, power plants and small businesses such as dry cleaners will be set.

Gasoline might also be regulated. Thornton said more ecologically friendly fuel is available but is not sold in Minnesota because the added expense deters consumers from purchasing it.

Individuals can also diminish pollution in the area by limiting driving, refueling vehicles in the evening when there’s less evaporation into the air and reducing energy use, said Ralph Heussner, MPCA communications director.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, said she and other members of the Legislature are concerned about the jump in pollution.

“There are people in the Legislature who don’t want to deal with this and there are people who do,” Wagenius said. “We need leadership from the Pollution Control Agency so we know what we can do.”

She said representatives have drawn up and considered pollution bills on the House floor, but nothing concrete has been decided.

In the meantime, MPCA experts are concerned and are looking into the problem.

“It makes a lot of sense to avoid this problem if we can,” Thornton said, “because we want to avoid federal regulation and want to help protect human health and the environment.”