Opinion

Northwest Clean Air Agency’s work results in clearer air in Whatcom County

The federal Clean Air Act is credited with saving lives, reducing disease, protecting the environment and spurring the American economy – all while saving the country money.

In its report on the benefits and costs of the Clean Air Act Amendments from 1990 to 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculated the benefits of air quality improvements at $1.3 trillion in 2010, with benefits exceeding costs by a factor of 25-to-1.

According to EPA’s projections in the same report, in 2020 alone, the annual dollar value of benefits of air quality improvements will reach $2 trillion, with benefits exceeding costs by a factor of 30-to-1.

“The results of our analysis … make it abundantly clear that the benefits of the Clean Air Act Amendments exceed its costs by a wide margin, making the Clean Air Act Amendments a very good investment for the nation,” wrote the EPA report authors.

But laws can’t accomplish these benefits simply by virtue of their existence. They require government agencies to carry out and enforce them.

The Northwest Clean Air Agency is responsible for carrying out and enforcing federal, state, and local air quality laws, rules, and regulations in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties.

We’re working hard at our jobs, and we’re proud to say the air we breathe is cleaner because of it.

Local authority

The state of Washington allowed counties to form local clean air agencies when it passed its own Clean Air Act in 1967, three years before Congress passed amendments to the federal Clean Air Act that formed EPA and set air quality standards.

Under the state of Washington Clean Air Act, Northwest Clean Air Agency’s legal mandate is to regulate stationary sources of air pollution to “protect human health and safety, including the most sensitive members of the population, to comply with the requirements of the federal clean air act, to prevent injury to plant, animal life, and property, to foster the comfort and convenience of Washington’s inhabitants, to promote the economic and social development of the state, and to facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attractions of the state.”

Regulated industries can generally be divided into two main categories: major sources and minor sources.

Major sources have the potential to release the largest amount of air pollution. We have 26 major sources in our jurisdiction, including oil refineries, fiberglass products manufacturers and electric power generating plants, among others.

Some of the 375 minor sources are coffee roasters, asphalt plants, auto body shops, boat builders, dry cleaners, gas stations and cereal makers.

Regulating industry

We have staff who are primarily responsible for writing, reviewing, evaluating, issuing and updating permits for the industries that are required to have them. They must be experts in the air quality rules and regulations that apply to the facilities the agency regulates, and they must know how to apply them to the various industries that need permits to operate.

We issue, deny, and update permits for emissions sources through a public process. Our permits require industries to use the best technology available to control air pollution.

We also have staff members who are responsible for inspecting those facilities for compliance with permits, laws, and regulations, and who must enforce those requirements when facilities are out of compliance.

Reducing pollution

Through carrying out and enforcing increasingly protective requirements, we see significant decreases in air pollution released by industrial sources.

Major sources in our jurisdiction have reduced their release of sulfur dioxide by 70 percent in our jurisdiction since 1997.

In Whatcom County, major sources that are within our legal jurisdiction have decreased their release of sulfur dioxide by 84 percent since 1997. (Total sulfur dioxide released by industries located in Whatcom County has decreased less – by 52 percent – because of the contribution from Alcoa Intalco Works in Ferndale, which is not regulated by the Northwest Clean Air Agency. The law requires the Washington Department of Ecology to regulate aluminum smelters and pulp and paper mills.)

Sulfur dioxide is one of the six pollutants for which EPA has set limits to protect public health. We monitor for sulfur dioxide, which can cause a variety of respiratory health problems, including bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms, and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, particularly in at-risk populations including children, the elderly and asthmatics. Sulfur dioxide also contributes to acid rain and haze, which are of particular concern in our national forests and parks.

Greenhouse gases

The Northwest Clean Air Agency is the only air authority in the country that has directly required oil refineries to employ measures to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and was the first agency to directly limit carbon dioxide emissions and require continuous carbon dioxide emissions measurement at a refinery process unit.

In refining, as with our individual activities, reducing energy use is the best way to reduce carbon emissions. In determining compliance with our requirements that refineries use reasonably available control technology to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Phillips 66 in Whatcom County learned it was eligible for and obtained EPA’s Energy Star certification.

Data tells the story

We know air quality is good in our jurisdiction because of our work with air pollution sources and the air quality data we collect.

Monitors near major sources determine if the pollution they release is affecting the neighboring communities’ air quality.

Major pollution sources are also required by law and our permits to submit monthly monitoring data reports to us, and submit annual reports of all air emissions.

Real time monitoring data, monthly summaries and emissions inventories are all posted on our website, nwcleanair.org, under the air quality tab. These are your best sources of information about local air quality.

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