YAKIMA - At the Yakima County Regional Library Tuesday morning, Yakima Regional Clean Air Authority Executive Director Les Ornelas told members of the media, the business community and the U.S. Forest Service that new air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could hurt Yakima County if those standards aren't met.
Ornelas said the EPA has proposed a new standard that would require a 60 percent reduction in particulate matter that's 2.5 microns wide - also referred to as PM 2.5. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch.
The standards would reduce the amount of PM 2.5 per cubic meter from 65 micrograms to 35 micrograms.
"We think this is one of the most important things the EPA has done," Ornelas said.
PM 2.5 comes from a variety of sources, Ornelas said. One of the biggest sources in Yakima County is uncertified wood stoves.
Other big contributors are cars, industrial combustion and agricultural burning.
In the Yakima Valley, Mother Nature doesn't help the problem either.
Most of what would be nonattainment days, or days where the county wouldn't be in compliance with the new standards, occur in the winter. Cold temperatures create a pocket of stagnant air, or an inversion, over the Valley and trap that air, pollution and all.
"The daily activities here continue to build up until the next day," he said. "Those conditions are out of our control."
Ornelas likened the situation in the Valley to a cup with a lid over the top of it.
The current standard was set in place in 1997, and when Ornelas came to Yakima in 1995, he said the county was far from being in compliance with many things, including carbon monoxide emissions and PM 10 - which are particulates that are visible to the naked eye.
"All of these standards are designed to protect public health," he said.
That stems from the effects these particles can have on a person's health. They can cause skin and eye irritation and can get into a person's respiratory system and cause breathing problems, the biggest of which is asthma in this county.
Ornelas said Yakima County is one of the worst counties in the state for asthma.
In Washington one in nine adults has asthma and one in 10 kids has asthma.
In this county, 16,000 hospital days a year are attributed to asthma-related visits and overnight stays.
"The reality of all of this is that these standards are being driven by health studies," Ornelas said.
The new standards are scheduled to go into effect in September of this year, Ornelas said, and that means things need to get started now in terms of working to clean up air quality.
"I believe Yakima can find its way out of this problem," he said.
By 2009, the EPA will begin to make its assessments of overall air quality and determine which counties in the country are in compliance with the newly imposed regulations.
If the county isn't in compliance with the new standards when the EPA releases its findings, it could be penalized in a number of ways.
The biggest penalty that could be levied against Yakima County would be the withholding of millions of dollars in federal funds for transportation projects.
Ornelas said in California, when the previous standards were set in place, counties lost hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of non-compliance with the new regulations.
"We rely on federal monies for most of our public works," he said.
In addition, the EPA could mandate certain rules, such as burn bans and enforcement of penalties for the use of uncertified wood stoves, which perpetuate the problem.
But Ornelas said he hopes the problem won't get that far.
"We don't want a prescription from the doctor," he said, referring to the EPA.
The result of these new standards means on a clear day like Tuesday, the county might have to call for a burn ban due to the possibility of an inversion trapping stagnant air over the Valley.
Other efforts to reduce agricultural burning and the use of uncertified wood stoves, such as rebate programs for new ones, will also help to make a difference, Ornelas said.
But the public must be on the same page with the Clean Air Authority, or all the encouragement and education will be for naught.
The bottom line for Ornelas is that he's optimistic about the situation.
"We have an opportunity to control our own destiny today," he said.