Climate change and the potential economic impacts of poor air quality in northern Nevada

by Roger Moellendorf and Brian Bahouth

California wildfires make for a smoky day in Reno on August 18, 2018. Banks of solar panels at the Desert Research Institute(DRI) in Reno. DRI installed 96 solar panels in 2009 with 20 Kilowatts of electrical generation capacity, and today 4,216 solar panels generate more than a megawatt of electricity and provide 18 percent of DRI’s electrical power. Solar saves the institute more than $150,000 annually in electrical costs - image - Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News.

Carson City – The Desert Research Institute (DRI) held their seventh annual Great Basin Climate Forum, Thursday, December 6, 2018 at their campus in Reno.  Scientists from DRI and other organizations gave presentations with a focus on what a changing climate means for the Great Basin. Topics included snowpack dynamics, high temperatures, droughts, and how climate change is affecting wildfire in the western United States.  Julie Hunter is Senior Air Quality Specialist for Washoe County Health District Air Quality Management Division and in her talk she said Washoe County is on the brink of failing to meet federal air quality standards and that the economic impacts have already been significant.

Hear an excerpted version of Julie Hunter’s presentation to the seventh annual Great Basin Climate Forum … see music credits at the end of this article …

The Clean Air Act of 1970 required the EPA develop national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).  Through monitoring stations located across the nation, regional and federal air quality officials monitor for six primary pollutants, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, all variations of nitrogen oxide, ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and lead, though no municipality in northern Nevada has crossed the population threshold for monitoring lead of 500,000 residents.

Julie Hunter told the gathering that Washoe County is currently meeting all federal standards, but there is not a lot of margin for more pollution.  The EPA sets levels for monitored air pollutants, and for worst instance, the standard for average annual ozone level is set at 70 ppb. The Washoe County average annual ozone level for 2017 was 70, the bare minimum to meet the standard.

The 24 hour average federal standard for ozone is 35 ppb; Washoe County was 24 in 2017.

There are two types of airborne particulates of interest to air quality regulators, PM 10 and PM 2.5.  PM 10 particulates are smaller than 10 microns in size, and any airborne particle small than PM 10 is considered a “fine particulate”.   The limit for PM 2.5 is 12 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter); and Washoe County was 7.6 in 2017, so regarding ozone and particulates, the region does not have a lot of wiggle room before air quality exceeds federal standards.  

What happens if regional air quality fails to meet federal standards?

There are three air quality regulation agencies at work in Nevada.  Both Washoe and Clark counties have air quality departments, but the state’s remaining 15 counties fall under the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, and the number of air quality monitoring stations is far fewer than in Nevada’s two most populous counties.  Outside Washoe and Clark counties there are a total of 7 air monitoring stations for the vast 15 county region. 

There are recent and ongoing studies intended to more clearly define the monetary impacts of poor air quality, and though the costs of polluted air are difficult to fully calculate, few dispute that poor air quality has many actual and possible negative effects on economic activity.

Julie Hunter offered concrete examples of how failing to meet federal air quality standards would affect northern Nevada’s most populous county, Washoe.  

“There are many impacts of non-attainment.  Not only does it mean that it is harmful for our public to breathe our the air … a non-attainment can actually put us into economic impacts requiring limits on permits and then extra pollution control equipment for these people we actually permit, say auto body shops, so if we go into non-attainment, this could mean that some businesses will not come into Reno and bring their business here because we are in non-attainment, and they would have to put more limits on their businesses” Hunter said.

An audience member asked Hunter for more detail on what failing to meet federal air quality standards might mean for the local economy.

“If we go into non-attainment, then we are going to write a state implementation plan, so for example if we go into non-attainment for PM 2.5, anybody who emits any 2.5 that we permit here in Washoe County will have to put higher permits, control devices, maybe higher permit fees.  People might not come here,” Hunter said. “Apple might move out. Some of the big companies that are coming here to do business here, Tesla … we won’t see some of those businesses come here. We’ll have to put higher standards on anyone who is permitted, depending on the pollutant we’re dealing with.”

In 2003, Starbucks opened a 360,000-square-foot  roasting plant in Minden, Nevada and further expanded the production plant on their 100 acre site in 2005.  In 2017, the coffee roaster and retailer added a 720,000-square-foot distribution warehouse to the Douglas County facility.  According to Hunter, air quality limits prevented Starbucks from locating it’s roasting facilities in Washoe County.

“At one time we exceeded PM 10, years ago in 2003 I’m trying to remember, but Starbucks wouldn’t come here because we were in a non-attainment area for PM 10,” Hunter said.

Wildfires and air quality in northern Nevada

The most recent National Climate Assessment illustrates that a warmer planet means more frequent, more widespread and intense wildfires.

The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

Julie Hunter said wildfires drive regional air quality to its federal limits.

Particulates

According to Hunter, the primary sources of fine particulates in northern Nevada are wood stoves and regional wildfires.  Again, the federal average annual standard for “fine particulate” or PM 2.5 is 12 ppb; Washoe County was 7.6 for 2017.

“To give you an idea, a fine particulate is 1/30th the diameter of a human hair,” Hunter said to the group of assembled scientists.  “So we are really concerned about the PM 2.5 because it can be inhaled deep into the lung, cause serious health problems.”

Some of the health effects of deep inhalation of fine particulates include irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, coughing and wheezing.  

Ozone and wildfires

Wildfires, according to Hunter, not only load the regional atmosphere with particulates but also drive levels of ozone to the limit in northern Nevada.

Again, the 24 hour average federal standard for ozone is 35; Washoe County is 24 in 2017. 

Ozone in northern Nevada has a couple primary sources.  Fifty-six percent comes from vehicles, but according to Hunter, massive wildfires in northern California made for a sharp increase in the amount of ozone in the atmosphere of northern Nevada.

“We are finding now that ozone concentrations are much further away from the plumes of the fire, so we are actually seeing an increase in ozone concentrations due to these massive wildfires we are experiencing,” said Hunter.

Hunter listed the health effects associated with breathing ozone as if she had said it many times.

“Ozone gets trapped deep inside of our lungs causing a shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and damage to the airways, aggravate lunge disease and asthma attacks and can lead to lung infections.”