50 years of clean air progress: 1969 - 2019
We go back a few decades. And now at 50, we celebrate our "golden" anniversary by remembering the people, events and milestones that got us here. In 1968, before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created, the Agency's first executive director, Fred Shioshaki, was hired in response to studies showing that Spokane County had significant air quality issues that needed to be addressed. On January 1, 1969, the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority was fully activated to do business. In 1970, an air quality specialist was hired. Shortly thereafter, a chemist-inspector and a federal trainee was assigned to the agency.
Today we are known as the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (Spokane Clean Air). We have a staff of 20 dedicated employees working in engineering and permitting, compliance and enforcement, outreach and education, and administrative positions.
When Spokane Clean Air began its work, the area was home to about 287,500 residents. Today, our county's population is over 500,000 residents. Given this growth in population, the improvements made to our air quality are quite remarkable.
The chart on the left illustrates Spokane County's air quality success story.
It's important to note that over these five decades, especially in the 1970s and 80s, the number and location of air monitoring sites changed as well as air monitoring technology.
Additionally, and in response to health-related studies, air quality standards have been updated throughout this 50 year period to better protect human health and the environment.
When we began our work in 1969, there was a visible brown haze covering the city, as noted in photos and reports of the time. The air contained pollutants from many sources, which caused breathing problems and poor visibility.
After three decades working to clean up the air, Spokane County was officially removed from the “dirty air” list and declared in attainment of clean air standards by the EPA in 2005. Since then, our air quality has remained in compliance with all of the federal, health-based clean air standards.
We have, however, experienced unhealthy air quality on several days the past few years due to wildfire smoke. While wildfires and dust storms are considered “natural events” and therefore do not affect our compliance status, they do affect the health of our residents.
To find out what was in the air and where it was coming from, we relied on “low-tech” methods, such as chemistry and visual observations. In the early years, sticky tape jars were used to capture pollution. Empty peanut butter jars covered with sticky tape were placed on property downwind from industrial polluters to see if emissions were impacting neighboring properties. Today, sophisticated air quality monitoring stations are located throughout Spokane County, providing real-time data of pollution levels.
Spokanites were very vocal about how the smoke, soot and odors from outdoor burning were affecting them. Backyard burning was a common practice, as was burning piles of construction debris. Burning trash in burn barrels was commonplace up until 1969-1970, when the practice was banned and garbage collection services were expanded. When commercial businesses were no longer allowed to burn, dumpsters were purchased and businesses began recycling cardboard.
Today, outdoor burning for disposal is limited to natural vegetation and only in a few outlying areas of the county. Natural vegetation is picked up at curbside in many areas, and accepted at area recycling/transfer stations.
Belching smokestacks were common in the early years of air pollution control. Buildings downtown were often discolored from pollution. Industrial and commercial sources of air pollution were a key focus for clean-up. This was a large undertaking for most industries, as air pollution control equipment had to be designed for each process, ordered, shipped, and installed.
Over the years, new equipment and improved operations have dramatically reduced air pollution from the commercial sector, which now accounts for less than 20% of air pollution.
In the mid 1970s, unleaded gasoline became available and catalytic converters were installed on vehicles. In the mid 80s, the vehicle emissions testing program was initiated to reduce carbon monoxide pollution. Most of our well-traveled dirt roads have been paved. Businesses are supporting commute trip reduction by encouraging employees to use alternatives to driving alone to work. The community continues to work together to address congestion by supporting transit as well as bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly designs.
2019 and beyond
Our work isn’t done. As the region grows, so do the emissions in our air shed. Efforts to improve air quality and to stay in compliance with health-based standards must continue.
We have new challenges as well. Recent summers have been shrouded in smoke from wildfires burning near and far. The chart on the left shows that there were 16 days last August when air quality rose above the health-based standard due to wildfire smoke.
Smoke affects us all, especially our most vulnerable residents. In addition to the health concerns from breathing smoke-filled air, there are economic impacts in our communities as well. Outdoor events and recreational opportunities that local residents enjoy and that attract visitors to our area are at risk of low attendance and cancellations.
We do know this. Clean air is a precious resource and we’ll continue our work with residents, businesses and partner agencies. Striving for good air quality now and into the future is well worth the effort.