American Lung Association releases State of the Air report

Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Taos counties received “A” grades from the American Lung Association in terms of particle pollution, however ozone pollution remains a problem. Bernalillo County received an “F” for the number of high ozone days while Santa Fe County received a “C.” Data was not available to evaluate Taos County. The American Lung Association released its 22nd annual State of the Air report today. This report is based on air quality data from 2017, 2018 and 2019. The Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas area in New Mexico tied with Albany and Schenectady, New York, as having the second cleanest air in the country in terms of short-term particle pollution, according to the report.

Report: Climate change, oil & gas emissions a bad mix for New Mexico air quality

Climate change and a sharp increase in oil and gas production in the state are contributing to worsening air quality in New Mexico, according to a new report. 

The American Lung Association’s (ALA) annual “State of the Air 2020” report, which looks at ozone and particle pollution levels across a three-year period between 2016 and 2018, found air quality across the country has worsened since last year’s report, and New Mexico is no exception. 

Climate change has been a chief driver of worsening air quality, said JoAnna Strother, senior advocacy director for ALA, because it increases the amount of particulate matter in the air. 

“Climate change is really leading to stuff that we saw in this year’s report. The past five years are the warmest years on record, globally,” Strother said. “As temperatures warm up, we see more droughts, more dust storms, more wildfires — all of those contribute to the unhealthy air quality that we see picked up on air quality monitors.”

Wildfires are another major contributor to particle pollution, she said, particularly in the western United States. 

“Those wildfires might be happening in California and we would certainly see effects in other states like New Mexico,” she said. 

Strother also pointed to drought, a common and growing environmental challenge in New Mexico. 

“When there’s no rain to saturate, the dust becomes very fine particles, and when that’s picked up into the air, it [becomes] particle pollution. We’re specifically looking at PM2.5, so it’s extremely fine particles that lodge very deep down into the lungs, and is responsible for a lot of the health impacts,” she said. 

Particulate matter monitors in NM

Much of the particulate matter data for New Mexico is missing from the ALA report, which uses data compiled from state air quality monitors. 

Source: American Lung Association

That’s because the state’s ambient air quality monitors aren’t placed in each county, according to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). New Mexico maintains 20 ambient air quality monitors throughout the state, and the locations of those monitors are based on population density, NMED spokesperson Maddy Hayden told NM Political Report. 

Hayden said NMED’s air quality monitors and their locations must be federally-approved, and the state would not receive approval to place more air quality monitors in areas that do not meet population requirements. 

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“What pollutants are monitored in the network and where those monitors are located is determined and governed by federal requirements for siting and the federal Environmental Protection Agency,” she said. 

Particulate matter in Eddy and Lea counties, for example, is monitored by just one PM2.5 “sampler” located in Hobbs.

Has the moment for environmental justice been lost?

Given how President Donald Trump has taken aim at the Environmental Protection Agency with regulatory rollbacks and deep proposed budget cuts, it may come as no surprise that the Office of Environmental Justice is on the chopping block. This tiny corner of the EPA was established 24 years ago to advocate for minorities and the poor, populations most likely to face the consequences of pollution and least able to advocate for themselves. It does so by acting as a middleman, connecting vulnerable communities with those who can help them. It heads a group that advises EPA officials about injustices and another that brings together representatives from other federal agencies and the White House to swap proposals. When it works, all the talk leads to grants, policies and programs that change lives.