From the Ground Up

Across America, communities increasingly recognize that clean air is a foundation for preserving quality of life, remaining economically competitive and protecting the health of citizens. This is a key finding of a new air quality report, Profiles of Local Clean Air Innovation: Empowering Communities to Meet the Air Quality Challenges of the 21st Century, released by the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals (NALGEP).

Although great progress has been achieved since passage of the Clean Air Act (42 United States Code sections 7401-7671q) in 1970, localities face new challenges in reducing soot, greenhouse gases, and toxic air pollution. Increasing traffic congestion and sprawling development threaten to erase the air quality progress of the past several decades. Air quality monitors in many communities continue to measure unhealthy ozone levels. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) most recent annual air quality trends report, approximately 62 million Americans still live in areas "that had unhealthy air for at least one of six major pollutants (nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter and lead)."


Federal air quality regulations must be coupled with local innovative approaches that shape the way our communities grow and develop, transport citizens, power our homes and businesses, and manufacture and consume goods.

As the units of government closest to air quality problems, municipalities and counties are playing a key, emerging role in air quality improvement. Cities and counties experience firsthand the results of air pollution -- public health threats, polluted neighborhoods, slowdowns in economic development, and regulatory complexities that derive from dirty air. Most localities believe that, although traditional Clean Air Act controls have led to cleaner air, federal air quality regulations must be coupled with local innovative approaches that shape the way our communities grow and develop, transport citizens, power our homes and businesses, and manufacture and consume goods. By combining Clean Air Act controls with incentives for local innovation, America can better achieve clean air and healthy communities into the 21st century.

NALGEP launched the Clean Air Partnership Project in 1999 to identify promising voluntary air practices and better understand the needs of local government air quality officials. Profiles of Local Clean Air Innovation presents the perspectives of local government officials on new approaches and partnerships to foster clean air communities. The report profiles a number of innovative community-based initiatives and demonstrates the need for more incentives for these local activities.

Local innovation

According to the report, lasting clean air progress will require local innovation in smart growth, clean energy, transportation choice, pollution prevention, regional collaboration, public participation and other practices that compliment traditional Clean Air Act controls. Many local governments are implementing new community-based approaches to improve air quality. For example, Cincinnati, Ohio, launched a program in partnership with the Regional Ozone Coalition and BP Amoco Oil to replace leaking gas caps within the metropolitan region. Leaking gas caps release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- an ozone (smog) precursor -- into the atmosphere and can waste as much as $30 worth of gasoline per vehicle every year through evaporation. Cincinnati's program replaced more than 23,000 leaking gas caps, reducing annual emissions of VOCs by approximately 1,300 tons.

"The Gas Cap Replacement Program was a significant step in improving the region's air quality," says Dennis Murphey, Director of Cincinnati's Office of Environmental Management. "With the support of the business community, replacing leaking gas caps offered a cost-effective, popular, easy-to-implement strategy for reducing smog."


Funding for local air quality programs is decreasing, even as federal and state mandates increase.

In Fort Worth, Texas, the Environmental Management Department launched the City Employees' Ozone Incentive Program to encourage municipal workers to consider alternative modes of transportation during the peak ozone season. On an annual basis , between May 1 and October 31, city employees qualify for grand prize drawings when they perform a variety of actions on Air Pollution Watch days. Activities that qualify include:

  • packing a sack lunch;
  • car or van pooling to work;
  • riding a bus or biking to work;
  • working 10-hour day, 4-day weeks;
  • telecommuting; and
  • working flex-time schedules.

City employees also are able to enjoy a number of special perks for participating in Air Pollution Watch days including:

  • dressing casually when they car or van pool;
  • receiving preferred parking for car or van pools;
  • earning one hour of comp time for every five days of car or van pooling;
  • earning one hour of vacation time for opening direct deposit accounts; and
  • receiving free daily tokens and discounted monthly bus passes.

"Fort Worth's Employees' Ozone Incentive Program provides an important educational function for municipal personnel," states Brian Boerner, Director of the Fort Worth Environmental Management Department. "For an investment of only a few thousand dollars in prizes, Fort Worth is effectively altering the behavior of city employees during our ozone season."

Overcoming barriers

While local governments are eager to implement new, innovative air quality approaches, significant barriers threaten to undermine the Clean Air Act's achievements. According to the study, funding for local air quality programs is decreasing, even as federal and state mandates increase. Many localities lack the tools for measuring the emission benefits of innovative local practices, and regulatory policies have failed to credit those emissions reduction strategies. At all levels of government, a detrimental lack of coordination exists among environmental, economic development and transportation strategies for multi-pollutant air quality goals. Local governments have not achieved the level of partnership necessary to address air quality problems on a regional basis. In addition, local environmental officials experience difficulty obtaining information on successful air quality practices and acknowledge that public outreach and education on air quality must improve to affect citizen behavior.

As Art Williams of the Air Pollution Control District of Jefferson County, Kentucky states, "Local governments cannot clean the air alone and cannot control the pollution that transcends our political and local boundaries. We need a dedicated approach to Clean Air Act controls from EPA and all of our states."

Local officials are ready to work in partnership with EPA and other federal agencies, state governments, regional bodies, environmental organizations and the private sector to launch a new approach to cleaner air. Local governments are uniquely situated to lead clean air strategies because they understand local conditions and can best influence local practices that connect environmental, economic development and community goals.

NALGEP's report identified a number of ideas that can help empower localities to adopt new air quality strategies, create new resources and incentives for clean air innovation, foster regional cooperation on air quality goals and enhance communication among all levels of government and the public. The recommended actions would empower local governments to improve and protect community air quality through new funding, regulatory incentives, partnerships and communication tools. Specific recommendations include the creation of a new federal fund to support local clean air demonstration projects; the establishment of new regulatory incentives to give credit for local actions involving smart growth and pollution prevention; a shift from more road-building to transit choices and alternative fuel vehicles; and the launch of new EPA pilot and outreach programs targeted to local governments. By complementing the command-and-control requirements of federal law, this community-based approach to clean air can ensure the health and prosperity of American communities for the long-term.

Conclusion

Local governments are uniquely situated to lead clean air strategies because they understand local conditions and can best influence local practices that connect environmental, economic development and community goals. New tools are emerging in the areas of smart growth, environmental technology, industrial ecology and pollution prevention. The new economy provides a chance for increased coordination on a regional basis. Citizens at the local level are using the Internet and innovative forms of grassroots participation to shape the way their communities move toward environmental and quality-of-life objectives. Those trends and opportunities make the beginning of the 21st century an ideal time for communities to work in partnership with each other as well as with state, regional and federal government to achieve cleaner air and healthier communities.

"Communities across the country have used innovative approaches to improving air quality and reducing public health risk," states Marcia Willhite, Assistant Chief of Environmental Health with Lincoln-Lancaster County, Nebraska. "Just think what could be accomplished through a little more partnership and a few more resources."

e-sources

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Office of Air and Radiation -- www.epa.gov/air

State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials -- www.4cleanair.org

National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals - www.nalgep.org




This article appeared in the March 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 3, on page 84.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Joseph W. Berlin, PE, is president of BLDI Environmental and Safety Management Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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