Choking on the Data

Treasure Valley's air quality comes under Idaho Conservation League scrutiny


In the decade that Courtney Washburn has lived in Boise, she has noticed one unattractive quality of the Treasure Valley: The wintertime inversions. The community conservation director for the Idaho Conservation League decided to dig into the numbers and see what was really happening when a thick haze of pollution blankets Boise.

When Washburn and Bryan Hurlbutt—an attorney with Advocates for the West—pulled the data from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, they were shocked.

"We weren't surprised that the standards were being violated," Hurlbutt said, "but we were surprised by how much."

ICL declared the Treasure Valley's air quality is so bad, the Environmental Protection Agency needs to step in. But the Idaho DEQ said Washburn and Hurlbutt's view is too narrow.

Washburn and Hurlbutt looked at measurements of fine particulate matter air pollution, which are tiny particles that can be inhaled and cause adverse health effects. The particles come from car emissions, power plants and smoke.

The data Washburn and Hurlbutt saw revealed a sharp increase of fine particulate matter beginning in 2011, spiking in 2012 and skyrocketing in 2013—so high that Ada County ranked fourth in the nation for amount of fine particulate matter in a 24-hour period, above Los Angeles; Salt Lake City; and Sacramento, Calif.

The EPA requires fine particulate matter be less than 35 micrograms per cubic meter air in a 24-hour period. In 2012, the number in the Treasure Valley was 41 and, in 2013, it hit 89.

Provoked by the figures, Hurlbutt drafted a petition to submit to the EPA, calling for the federal agency to declare Ada and Canyon counties nonattainment areas. Falling under that designation would kick off a yearslong process to bring the Treasure Valley back into compliance.

The petition was submitted to the EPA and Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on Feb. 6, with a request for action within 120 days.

"Until EPA takes action, residents of Idaho's largest metropolitan area will continue to breath [sic] unhealthy air," wrote Hurlbutt.

When Bruce Louks—modeling, monitoring and emission inventory program manager at DEQ—read the petition, he wasn't impressed.

"The narrative in that petition needs to be reworked because it's not very accurate," Louks told Boise Weekly. "When you say air pollution is skyrocketing, you're stepping out of context."

He pulled out a chart with the same numbers Advocates for the West built its petition on—showing the sharp spike from 2011-2013—but the chart also showed data from 2005-2014 to provide a bigger picture.

Every year from 2005 to 2011, the levels of fine particulate matter stayed below the standard level of 35 micrograms per cubic meter—most years hovering just below 30. In 2010, the numbers dropped as low as 12. After the sharp spike in 2013, the number dropped in 2014 to 28.

Louks explained what happened in 2012 and 2013 to skew the numbers so high.

"In 2012, we had a situation in the month of September where we were inundated with smoke from wildfires," he said, adding that wildfire smoke shouldn't count—and the EPA agrees.

Under federal guidelines, pollution from wildfires is out of human control and the DEQ can submit formal documentation to the EPA to have that data excluded from the pollution total. However, the DEQ didn't do that.

"[The documentation process] is very expensive for us to do," Louks said, "and it takes a lot of time and research and preparation. But if by documenting those exceptional events avoids nonattainment, we'll certainly do that."

If the documentation process would have been done, taking away the data gathered on the smoke-filled days of 2012, the number would drop to 19—well below the standard.

That leaves 2013, a stark difference in air quality. Louks said it was caused by an inversion that blanketed the valley for almost two weeks in January of that year. The inversion covered most of the Pacific Northwest, affecting Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

"What you're seeing in 2013, this is real," Louks said. "What we had here was an inversion like no other. It was extraordinary, like a 100-year flood."

Louks said had the inversion not persisted as long as it did—causing pollutants from car emissions and wood-burning stoves to build up and get trapped in the valley's airshed—the numbers in 2013 would have been normal.

Because the 2013 inversion was so unusual, the DEQ air quality team struggles with the ICL's petition and would rather not see the EPA designate Ada and Canyon counties as "nonattainment areas."

"Once you go nonattainment, it starts a 30-year process that is costly for the DEQ, the state, taxpayers and communities," said Mary Anderson, DEQ Mobile and Area Source Program manager.

Anderson would work at the front lines with the EPA should the counties be designated nonattainment. She said once that happens, it strips communities of the flexibility of control measures.

Instead, the DEQ would have to come up with a State Implementation Plan that works on regulatory and enforceable control measures to bring air quality levels back into compliance.

"We can solve problems without going nonattainment," she said. "It's a 30-year process that we're locked into. Or more."

Ada County has been designated as a nonattainment area before—not because of fine particulate matter but carbon monoxide. When that happened in the mid 1980s, Ada County started requiring yearly vehicle emission testing and put burn bans in place. It took only a few years to bring the numbers back to safe and stable levels, but the DEQ still must submit action plans every 10 years outlining how it intends to stay compliant.

Louks and David Luft, the regional airshed manager for the DEQ's Boise office, see the higher number in 2013 as a bit of an accomplishment. With modeling that shows how high fine particulate matter levels would have been during a similar inversion in the mid 1980s (before fine particulate matter was monitored), they estimate that it could have been well into the range of 300 micrograms per cubic meter.

"We had just as bad of an inversion now and we were at 89," Luft said. "Population has skyrocketed since then and we have way more cars on the road, but even in the mother of all inversions, the number has gone down. That, to me, says there's a lot of stuff that has gone right and what we're doing is working."

In the meantime, Louks said the decision is out of their hands.

"It just would have been cool if they [the Idaho Conservation League and Advocates for the West] could have come over and we could have talked before they wrote up the petition, because there are some errors in it and some misinterpretations," he said.

Washburn doesn't agree.

"I've heard all sorts of explanations and excuses," she said, "but I haven't heard any action. It's time we don't just say, 'Well, we have bad air in the winter,' but that we work to improve this problem."

She countered that she and Hurlbutt didn't take the petition lightly. She said she realizes how much of a controversy and "heartburn" comes from asking the EPA to designate the area as nonattainment, but she said she believes the public is already paying the costs—from decreased economic development to public health.

Being the mother of a 2-year-old who struggles with asthma, she said it forces her to think about air quality every single day.

"We don't believe that the decrease in air quality is an isolated event. We would not have brought the petition if we didn't think there was enough information over enough years to make the legal case for why the EPA should step in and do something," Washburn said. "It is frustrating, but that's the reality of working on conservation in the state of Idaho."

The EPA confirmed at the end of March that it received the petition, but it could take anywhere from a few months to a few years to make a decision.