Air pollution

Not all ozone is harmful. Ozone in the stratosphere, 6 miles to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface, protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But ozone in the troposphere, where we live on the surface of the Earth, can result in severe health problems. (Olivia Dow/Cronkite News)

The Phoenix Metro region could lose more than $100 million in economic growth if it fails to meet upgraded federal air quality standards for ozone levels by August 2024, a Valley environmental official warned earlier this month.

And those losses would steadily increase over the next 20 years to as much as $848 million if the Valley’s ozone levels are not brought under control, Tim Franquist, environmental policy director for the Maricopa Association of Governments told Phoenix City Council Jan. 4.

Though he was addressing a Phoenix City Council subcommittee, Franquist’s assessment naturally applies to the entire Valley.

And it wasn’t very encouraging.

He said the controls necessary to meet more stringent federal air quality controls will carry a substantial cost to taxpayers.

 “That’s going to be a big issue for this area,” he continued. “We really haven’t put in ozone-control measures for about 20 years, so we’re definitely going to need a lot more measures coming into place.”

Right now, the only way the Valley could meet the elevated Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone limits would be taking all four million gasoline-powered motor vehicles in Maricopa County off the road by August 2024, Franquist said.

And even then, he added, “we would barely make the standard.”

And since that’s a virtual impossibility, the cost of meeting tougher air quality standards could result in lost industrial development opportunities as businesses avoid relocating or expanding here rather than pay for expensive federally-imposed, tougher emission controls. 

That cost would extend beyond the Valley since tougher emission standards could even be imposed for trucks and cars that come into the region regularly from other parts of the state and country that may not have similarly tough standards, he said.

And it also could be reflected in other ways, Franquist said, such as more stringent air quality permits and more stringent emission control programs.” 

“It impacts us by negatively impacting businesses,” he said, noting that the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co plant in north Phoenix theoretically would need a permit and be operating before the new standards kick in. “Now, a $40 billion investment: I think the White House gets involved and I think (it) comes here.”

Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari seized on that example, saying “the hallmark example of an incredible foreign investment” would be scuttled because “we are dangerously close to reaching serious non-attainment, which means that those businesses would not be able to come here after 2024.”

“Non-attainment” is the classification that the EPA gives metro areas that fail to meet air quality goals. Other metro areas already have studied the economic impact of non-attainment and have projected staggering losses in future economic growth.

For example, Franquist said, the Oklahoma City metro area faces an economic loss of as much as $15.2 billion over the next 20 to 30 years for violating tougher federal air quality standards. Corpus Cristi, Texas, estimates a loss of $600 million to $1.7 billion a year in economic activity for failing to meet impending EPA ozone standards.

“We have kind of a table of increasing stringency in programs as we don’t meet the standard,” Franquist said. “So obviously. as we don’t meet those standards, those programs become more stringent and there’s more of them.”

Franquist said the culprit in all this is the ozone level.

While Maricopa County has actually done a good job reducing many air pollutants, he said, ozone levels have been aggravated in large part by things beyond its control – namely, forest fires in both Arizona and California and the Valley’s average 300 days of sunny weather.

“Unlike some pollutants, like carbon dioxide – which is a direct pollutant that comes from your tailpipe or from an industrial stack,” Franquist explained, “ozone is considered a secondary pollutant. So it actually requires volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen.”

And those compounds react to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, adversely affecting air quality.

Franquist produced a chart showing how wildfires in Arizona and California have adversely impacted air quality, posing a growing health risk to vulnerable adults and even more children.

“This is what our children are breathing,” he said. “What most folks don’t realize with children – they do breathe in the same amount of air as an adult. They just breathe faster than we do. So they actually take in these pollutants at the same level as adults but in smaller bodies.”

Franquist said the Valley’s future ability to meet federal air quality standards has been crippled by former Gov. Doug Ducey’s veto last year of a bill that would have asked the public to vote last November on an extension of the half-cent gas tax that funds a variety of rapid transit and road improvement projects.

While the Legislature could again vote to put Proposition 400 on next year’s ballot ahead of the tax’s expiration in 2025, the uncertainty currently surrounding it threatens a number of projects already on county and municipal drawing boards – including an expansion of public transportation aimed at curbing car traffic.

Franquist praised Phoenix for being “a fantastic leader” in programs aimed at reducing ozone pollution – mainly involving its multi-million-dollar investment in replacing a large portion of the city’s gas-powered vehicles such as fire engines and garbage trucks with electric ones and its aggressive expansion of bus and light rail routes. 

But many of those city vehicles won’t be replaced until 2028 – well beyond the federal deadline for ozone reduction.

Franquist also warned, “There’s no silver bullet in terms of reducing ozone in one different control program. It takes a lot of different control programs working together to actually reduce ozone.”

“I think it’s important that we continue to get the word out to both the public and to our legislators that this is important for our economy, but it’s absolutely important for our public health,” he added, conceding the ozone control programs “are not cheap to implement.”

Franquist’s message provoked Ansari to express alarm about the impending air quality measures and the region’s attitude toward them.

“We are treating them as though they’re not urgent, and they’re not priorities and they don’t have financial implications even though they really, really do and they will hurt us economically,” Ansari said. “So I feel very strongly that we need to be doing a lot more than we have.”

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