New Mexico Environment Department developing ozone reduction plan
Friday marked the fourth time this year that Albuquerque issued a health alert because of high ozone levels. Residents with breathing problems were warned to avoid outdoor activities.
But the city is not alone in dealing with the harmful pollutant.
Rising ozone levels across New Mexico have prompted the state Environment Department to create an ozone reduction plan.
Ground-level ozone is a gas that forms when volatile organic compounds react with nitrogen oxide in sunlight. The pollutant can worsen breathing problems such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. Ozone also contributes to smog.
Chemicals that fuel the creation of ozone are common near industrial sites and are found in vehicle emissions, making hot and sunny urban areas ideal for the pollutant. The New Mexico Environment Department's Air Quality Bureau will host public information meetings this month in Farmington, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Carlsbad to kick off an ozone reduction initiative.
"NMED is hopeful that this initiative, alongside efforts to regulate excess methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, will result in improved air quality for all New Mexicans — especially vulnerable populations like children and seniors," said Environment Department Secretary James Kenney.
Before the state can propose strategies to reduce ozone, it has to determine the source of the pollutants.
"There are several different areas in the state that are affected, and each area is unique and may have its own factors contributing to the elevated ozone," said Environment Department spokesperson Maddy Hayden. "There are several natural and industrial sources that can contribute to the formation of ozone."
In Albuquerque, the last two ozone alert days can be traced to smoke from distant wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.
"Wildfire smoke contains those precursors for ozone," said Jeff Stonesifer, a meteorologist with the city's air quality program. "It doesn't take much to push ozone levels close to the federal standard."
Pollution is not concentrated in one part of the state. Seven New Mexico counties consistently have ozone levels that are close to or exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency limit of 70 parts per billion. In 2015, the EPA made ground-level ozone standards stricter.
Stonesifer said this is the first year that Albuquerque has issued health alerts for ozone because of the new EPA limits.
"For several years ozone levels have been down in the city," he said. "Before the EPA lowered the federal standard, we didn't see it as a concern. But now, we're more concerned about ozone as a pollutant because we're seeing levels that are at or above the new standard."
Albuquerque has an awareness campaign to educate residents about how to decrease emissions and prevent high ozone levels.
Biking to work, using public transit and filling cars with gasoline at the end of the day can all reduce harmful emissions in the city.
Doña Ana County has some of the state's highest ground-level ozone concentration. Four air quality monitors in that county show ozone levels averaging at or above 68 parts per billion.
The Sunland Park area of southern Doña Ana County has exceeded EPA ozone limits under the old and new rules.
Hayden said the high concentrations in Sunland Park are largely driven by the flow of ozone from Mexico. EPA data shows that wind can transport ozone long distances from urban to rural areas.
Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan and Valencia counties also have monitors that are averaging close to or above the EPA ozone limit.
The state must create an ozone reduction plan when levels are within 95% of the EPA standard. This is the first time New Mexico has been required to make such a plan.
NMED will collect data to determine the source of ozone's precursor chemicals. The data will also predict how emissions regulations that target the chemicals could reduce ozone levels.
"Although NMED may propose some voluntary emission reduction projects, we will likely need to develop regulatory strategies to reduce ozone precursors from industrial sources," Hayden said. "Emissions reductions may also be realized by reducing emissions from mobile sources through the adoption of a Clean Cars rule. Transportation-related emissions will also be reduced through the replacement of older diesel-fueled vehicles with alternate-fueled and electric vehicles through Volkswagen Settlement funds."
New Mexico has received $18 million as part of a federal settlement with Volkswagen, after the company admitted misrepresenting the emissions levels of its vehicles. The settlement money will be used to replace old government and school vehicles in New Mexico with alternative-fueled vehicles.
After NMED data determines the source of the pollutants, the air quality bureau will develop an ozone regulation plan and present it to the state's Environmental Improvement Board.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.
New Mexico Environment Department ozone public information meetings
- Farmington: Sept. 9, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., San Juan College School of Energy, Merrion Rooms A&B, 5301 College Blvd.
- Santa Fe: Sept. 12, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., Santa Fe Public Library Southside Branch, 6599 Jaguar Drive
- Las Cruces: Sept. 25, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, Roadrunner Room, 200 E. Picacho Ave.
- Carlsbad: Sept. 26, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Carlsbad Museum and Art Center, 418 W. Fox St.