April 25, 2023

State of the Air report shows pollution trends in New Mexico

Hannah Grover/NM Political Report

A pumpjack is seen, Friday, May 7, 2021, near Huerfano, New Mexico.

Ozone pollution—or smog—remains a problem in New Mexico’s Permian Basin oil and gas fields, with Eddy County having some of the worst air quality in the country, according to a new State of the Air report released this week by the American Lung Association.

Eddy County, in southeast New Mexico, ranked as the 19th-worst county in the country for ozone during the 2019 through 2021 time frame.

The ozone pollution in the county has increased significantly since the 2014-2016 time frame, coinciding with an increase in fossil fuel production in the area.

The report that looked at 2014-2016 showed an annual average of one-to-three days of high ozone. The report shows that between 2019 and 2021, Eddy County had a weighted average of more than 19 days of high ozone pollution.

Lea County, another one of the Permian Basin oil and gas producing areas, was graded both on ozone and particulate matter. It received a “D” for ozone and a “B” for 24-hour particulate matter. The county had more than two days of high ozone levels on average each year, but this was a decrease from last year’s report that showed an annual weighted average of more than three days of high ozone levels.

San Juan Basin

Both San Juan County in the northern oil and gas region and Eddy County in the Permian Basin received “F” grades for ozone, though San Juan County saw an improvement in the number of high ozone days compared to last year’s report, which covered the 2018 through 2020 time frame.

The report released this week shows an annual weighted average of four high ozone days in San Juan County, which is a decrease from the nearly seven high ozone days a year from 2018 through 2020.

Not every county has air monitoring equipment. JoAnna Strother, the American Lung Association’s senior director of advocacy for the New Mexico area, said that means the State of the Air report gives a “slim picture” of the air quality in the country.

In New Mexico, 10 of the 33 counties have air monitoring equipment that looks either at ozone or particulate matter.

Of those 10 counties, Rio Arriba had the highest grade—a B. Rio Arriba County does not have monitors for particulate matter.

Portions of Rio Arriba County are within the San Juan Basin. The county saw an increase in ozone starting with the report that analyzed between 2014 and 2016. This leveled off in the 2016-2018 report with two days of high ozone on average each year and then began to improve. The most recent report shows an average of less than one day of high ozone annually.

Sandoval County, which also includes portions of the San Juan Basin, received a “D” grade for ozone with nearly 3 days of high ozone levels each year from 2019 through 2021. This was an improvement, though, from last year’s report that showed nearly six days of high ozone levels annually.

Urban areas

Doña Ana County received an “F” in both ozone levels and 24-hour particulate matter; however, its annual particulate matter received a “pass.”

There were an average of nearly 17 days of high ozone each year in Doña Ana County, but this was an improvement compared to last year’s report that showed more than 19 high ozone days on average each year.

The Las Cruces-El Paso region is ranked as the 14th most polluted region in the country in terms of ozone levels.

Strother said that in terms of particulate matter, the Las Cruces and El Paso area saw its worst ranking ever.

Bernalillo County received an “F” for ozone levels and a “D” for 24-hour particulate matter, though it passed the annual particulate matter category.

Strother said Bernalillo County did see an improvement in ozone levels, but a worsening of particulate matter pollution.

The improvement in ozone levels was small—decreasing the number of high ozone days from 8 to 7.8 on average each year.

But the 24-hour particulate matter pollution jumped from 0.3 days to more than two days of high particulate matter on average each year.

The Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Las Vegas area of New Mexico is ranked the 24th worst air in the country in terms of ozone.

Santa Fe and Valencia counties both received “C” grades for ozone.

Particulate matter

The increase in short-term particulate matter is a trend that can be seen across the western United States, Strother said. 

All but two of the top polluted cities for particulate matter are located in the western United States.

She said that is likely because of climate change and catastrophic wildfires.

The report does not include New Mexico’s record-breaking 2022 wildfire season. That will show up in next year’s report. But the time period of focus for this year’s report included major fires in other states including California, Arizona and Colorado. The smoke from those fires impacted New Mexicans.

“Air pollution travels all over,” Strother said.

The report looks at what is known as fine particulate matter or PM 2.5. Strother said this pollution can lodge itself deep in the lungs. 

The American Lung Association is calling on the federal government to set strong standards to address drought and wildfire, including wildfire mitigation and improving forest health, Strother said. She said the association is also calling for the federal government to implement standards that will clean up power plants and reduce emissions from vehicles, which can both contribute to ozone levels.

Strother said people can decrease their risk of health impacts from poor air quality by staying inside on days with high levels of pollution, especially if they are in at-risk categories. Those higher risk categories include children, seniors and people with chronic respiratory conditions.