No time to back down on clean air

Tacoma and all of Pierce County are making progress on air quality, and have been for a decade. Much of these gains have been achieved through programs that have reduced the burning of wood – especially in uncertified wood stoves – around the county.

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized this progress by lifting the “non-attainment area” designation. The progress is encouraging, but we still have a long way to go.

The 2015 State of the Air report from the American Lung Association finds that Pierce County still suffers some of the worst air quality in Washington – enough unhealthy air days to earn us an “F” grade for particle pollution.

Particulate pollution from dirty fuels and other sources sicken tens of thousands of area residents, contributing to asthma and other chronic lung conditions. Air pollution costs our communities dearly, in health care spending, lost productivity, reduced quality and length of life.

Continued efforts to take uncertified wood stoves out of service and enforce burn bans are a good start. But the key to even greater improvements in air quality is in tackling the emissions from cars and trucks – one of the most significant sources of particle pollution in Washington.

So far, the Legislature has failed to act on Gov. Jay Inslee's Carbon Pollution Accountability Act during this year's regular session, and the Senate has strongly opposed the governor's use of executive power to institute a Clean Fuel Standard. The Legislature should not stand in the way of reasonable action to combat carbon pollution.

By diversifying the transportation fuel sector and speeding Washington’s transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives like electricity and hydrogen, we can make dramatic improvements in air quality. While the clean fuels program is directed at carbon pollution, the air quality benefits of the transition away from dirty diesel and gasoline will improve health in the near term.

Pierce County’s F grade isn’t helped at all by our overdependence on dirty fuels. In fact, the toxic particles in diesel exhaust are responsible for nearly 80 percent of our cancer risk due to air pollutants in the Puget Sound region. The shift to cleaner fuels is a public health priority.

By establishing a Clean Fuel Standard for Washington, similar to those already in place in California, Oregon and British Columbia, Washington will reduce pollution from fuels used by cars and trucks by ten percent. Like Inslee’s Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, the clean fuel standard will also reduce our state’s contribution to climate change. But even better, the governor already has the legal authority to put a clean fuels standard in effect.

It’s a common-sense step that will demonstrably improve the lives of Washingtonians, including some 900,000 Washingtonians who live close to major roadways and face increased health risks from traffic pollution. Lower-income residents and people who today bear the greatest burden from pollution will be the greatest beneficiaries of cleaning up our fuel supply.

California’s clean fuels program is expected to reduce 1,200 tons of particles from the air over the next five years, resulting in nearly 100 avoided deaths in 2020 alone.

Tackling tailpipe emissions will have other benefits, too. Doing so will cut smog that exacerbates respiratory ailments. Asthma results in tens of thousands of emergency room visits and thousands of hospitalizations costing Washingtonians tens of millions of dollars.

We are presented with an opportunity to improve air quality and protecting public health long into the future by embracing a clean fuels standard that will benefit the health of everyone in Tacoma, Pierce County and Washington state. We should take it.

Carrie Nyssen is regional director of advocacy and air quality for the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific