ETHAN MILLER / LAS VEGAS SUN
Friday, June 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Jane Feldman, conservation chairwoman for the Southern Nevada group of the Sierra Club, awoke Monday to an air quality advisory. Thanks in large part to two wildfires west of the area, a thick, yellow haze sat on top of the valley like thin cappuccino foam, obscuring the mountains.
Feldman, who wears contacts, fought off itchy, watery eyes all day Monday. But by that night, she was celebrating some positive news in the environmental world: The Nevada Legislature, on the final day of the 2013 session, approved an energy bill that would close the Reid Gardner coal-fired electrical plant.
The National Parks Conservation Association has argued that contaminants from Reid Gardner have polluted the air as far west and south as Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, and also reached Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
Feldman was under no illusions that air quality was the driving factor in approving a law promoted by NV Energy, but in a state where it has sometimes been a slog to tackle smog problems, any victory is welcome.
"I'm not so sure air quality is on people's minds when they do this type of thing," Feldman said. "I'm sure they are thinking of the energy requirements of a large city; we need air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter. They are thinking of the economy and prices. But climate change is beginning to be something people think about it. ... Things are moving in a new direction."
As rapid growth hit Las Vegas in the 1990s, the area struggled mightily with air quality and needed several attempts to come up with a plan of action that satisfied the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets health-based standards for various measures of air quality, including carbon monoxide levels; the amount of dust, soot and other particulate matter in the air; and ozone levels.
Nevada Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, who was a leader for the local chapter of the Sierra Club in 2001, told the Los Angeles Times that year that Las Vegas should be dubbed "Smog City," not "Sin City."
"Our elected officials don't take this seriously, and the air quality officials have been either inept or corrupt or both," Pierce told the paper in 2001 after the head of Clark County's air quality department resigned amid heated criticism.
Today, Pierce is pleased about the turnaround in Southern Nevada that occurred in the past decade but knows the fight is a continuous one.
"Clark County has some of the toughest dust regulations in the country now," Pierce said. "If you lived here in the '90s, you know it's much better than it was. Although, part of it is that we don't have the level of construction we used to. The leadership for air quality control changed, and that made a huge difference."
Threatened with the loss of federal funds and local control, elected and appointed officials took action. The desert has a natural crust that locks in moisture and prevents dust from being swept up in strong winds. When contractors broke ground on acres of land for master-planned communities, high winds would stir up thick clouds of dust. Coupled with stricter federal guidelines for fuel efficiency and Nevada's implementation of vehicle smog checks and other provisions, Southern Nevada made significant advances. Strict regulations were put in place to contain dust on open plots and construction sites.
"Going back 20 years or so, the Las Vegas Valley had serious problems with carbon monoxide and inhalable particulates," said Russell Roberts, principal air quality specialist at the Clark County Department of Air Quality. "There were a number of unsuccessful efforts in the '80s and '90s to fix that problem, but ultimately plans were put in place locally that helped solve those issues."
Today, while carbon monoxide and particulate levels fall within federal health standards, the scourge of valley air quality is ozone, something Roberts said would be a "tough nut to crack" compared with dust and carbon monoxide. Ozone at ground level mostly comes from the interaction of sunlight, heat and emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.
Las Vegas is at a geographic disadvantage when it comes to controlling ozone levels and other markers of air quality.
"We don't rate very well in terms of ozone levels, but some things are completely out of our control," said Amy Beaulieu, director of programs for the American Lung Association in Nevada. "Geographically, we are in a big bowl. We have had a perfect example recently with the wildfires in California and the Spring Mountains. Smoke is blowing in and then sitting and hovering over the valley and getting cooked by the heat."
It also does not help to have one of the worst neighbors in the country when it comes to air quality, California. The Golden State is home to seven of the top 10 and 11 of the top 25 cities with the worst ozone levels, according to an April report from the American Lung Association. Las Vegas received passing grades from the association for its particulate matter but received an "F" for ozone levels and was labeled the 16th most ozone-polluted city.
Modeling from the county's air quality department indicates that a significant portion of the ozone in the area comes from California and other Western states.
The EPA is mandated to review its standards every five years, and the next review is due in December. While ozone levels have improved in the valley in the past 15 years, the standards have grown tighter. Environmental groups and the American Lung Association have been advocating for tighter requirements on ozone levels that could further pinch Las Vegas.
According to Roberts, preliminary data indicate that Clark County has not met ozone standards for a three-year period. If so, officials would have to get EPA approval for a plan to address the problem.
Karina O'Connor, who works in the EPA's air division, called Las Vegas a "pretty good success story" for how it tackled dust, soot and carbon monoxide. Local officials are in discussions with the agency on joining an advance ozone control program to help maintain compliance.
"Ozone is a tougher pollutant to look at," O'Connor said. "It's not just a small group of sources to work with; it's much more diverse. There are transport issues from California to Nevada, and that has to be figured out from a policy standpoint."
Air quality experts, environmentalists and public officials said one solution could include encouraging infill development, such as the ongoing revitalization of downtown Las Vegas, as opposed to expansion into the fringes of the developed portion of the valley. Other possible moves could involve different gasoline formulations that evaporate less quickly, an improved mass transportation network and encouraging alternative modes of commuting that do not rely on fossil fuels.
Although some residents may balk at higher gas prices or taxes to expand mass transit, Pierce said the public should keep the hidden costs of poor air quality in mind. Poor air quality can lead to health problems for children, the elderly, and sufferers of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma and other respiratory diseases.
"I'm not sure the public necessarily makes the connection between asthma and air pollution," Pierce said. "We, for a long time, had one of the highest rates of asthma, and asthma is the No. 1 reason children go to the emergency room and miss school. When children miss school, it's bad for them and can affect our federal funding. ... There are a lot of hidden costs to air pollution that don't really get brought into the discussion. Ozone problems can adversely affect the elderly, and what are the medical costs of that?"
Here are actions individuals can take to reduce ozone levels and precautions to take when an air quality advisory is issued in Southern Nevada.
Reduce emissions at home
Individuals can make the greatest impact by reducing their use of fossil fuels, from cars to all-terrain vehicles, boats and lawn mowers.
"If people got rid of gasoline-powered lawn mowers and switched to electric or, even better, the old-school push mowers, it would be small on the individual level but significant on a large scale," Beaulieu said.
Desert landscaping not only saves water but can also save on emissions-heavy landscaping and the use of gas-powered blowers, mowers and trimmers.
Additionally, smoke from wood fires contributes to the precursors for ozone and should be kept to a minimum or avoided.
Use your car wisely
Some of the biggest advances in terms of air quality in the United States have come from cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles.
"Cleaner cars are a big deal," Roberts said.
But there are still things drivers can do to reduce ozone levels. First, drive less. Second, only fuel up after sunset and be careful not to spill any gasoline. Keep your car well maintained, and carpool when possible.
If most of your driving is for commuting, consider a low-emissions vehicle such as a scooter, motorcycle or hybrid automobile.
Use alternative transportation
While steps can be taken to reduce the impact of vehicle traffic, the best measure is to use alternative transportation methods.
Moving to an area that reduces your commute for work and shopping can significantly reduce emissions.
Use mass transportation whenever possible or, even better, walk or ride a bike.
Reduce energy use
A great deal of air pollution comes from the production of electricity.
Energy savings not only save consumers money but also reduce the emissions of gases that contribute to the creation of ozone.
Reducing the use of air conditioning as well as turning off lights and electronic devices when not in use will contribute to cleaner air.
Protect your health
The Clark County Department of Air Quality maintains a forecast page where daily conditions are available.
When air quality is poor, certain precautions should be taken, especially for the young, elderly, and those with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.
Limit outdoor exertion. If you plan to exercise outdoors, do so only early in the morning or late in the evening.
If you work outdoors, consider wearing a painter's mask or surgical mask.
When air quality is poor, keep windows closed and run your air conditioner.
Regularly inspect and change indoor air filters.