The Choke's on Us

Most Minnesotans remember the days, not so long ago, when we waited at vehicle emissions test sites to prove that our cars weren't spewing so much carbon monoxide as to single-handedly pollute the air.

Those testing sites were shut down in 1999, a result of Gov. Jesse Ventura's move to lower license plate tab fees. And because the program had worked--Minnesota had successfully reduced carbon monoxide emissions to the satisfaction of the Clean Air Act's national air quality standards--the move was allowed. But if current trends continue, Minnesota's "attainment" status once again could be in jeopardy--and this time, for ground-level ozone. In other words, smog.

"Without being an alarmist, it is important for people to realize that with more population development we're going to start seeing more and more of the big-city problems," says Tim Gerlach, director of outdoor air programs for the American Lung Association of Minnesota.

"Non-attainment" status determined by national standards would mean costly cleanup efforts in addition to its untenable label. Compliance could cost Minnesota up to $266 million per year, according to a recent Minnesota Chamber of Commerce study. The price tag hits both businesses, with items such as scrubbers for smokestacks, and individuals, with fees for vehicle emissions tests.

If Minnesota's seemingly clear skies leave you wondering why anyone is worrying about air quality, you're not alone. Clean Air Minnesota, a program of the Minnesota Environmental Initiative, was formed in January 2003 to ensure that Minnesota remains in compliance with clean air standards. Director Bill Droessler and others believe that Minnesotans' perception of air quality doesn't exactly jibe with reality. That, perhaps, stems from the fact that Minnesota holds a geographical trump card when it comes to air pollution.

"We're blessed with flat land," Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokeswoman Rebecca Helgesen says. "When things blow in, they also blow out. We're not more virtuous than Missoula or Denver; we just live in a place where it doesn't matter quite as much."

Nonetheless, the Twin Cities spent 13 days in the orange category of the Air Quality Index in 2003, a system set up to warn U.S. citizens of potentially hazardous air conditions. Orange, a warning that the air may be unhealthy for sensitive groups, is a precursor to red (unhealthy for everyone), purple (very unhealthy), and maroon (hazardous).

The cleanliness of the air is measured in four categories: ozone, fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Minnesota environmental groups have been paying close attention to ozone for many years; more recently, they're increasingly worried about fine particulate matter.

"A few years ago, we never would have guessed that fine particles would be the source of more concern than ozone," Helgesen says.

It turns out that the tiniest particles--those that measure approximately 1/50th the size of a human hair--are quite potent for their size, embedding themselves into the far recesses of our lungs. Unlike smog, particles don't disappear in the cold. Minnesota is as likely to get tagged with an orange day for particulate matter in January as in July.

Indeed, particulate pollution pushed Minnesota into the orange category 10 of the 13 days the state reached that level. And in the recently released American Lung Association's State of the Air: 2004 report, Hennepin County earned a C for 24-hour particle pollution and Ramsey County got a D, based on a three-year average.

Part of the reason there were so many warnings is simply because of increased vigilance. Never before has Minnesota had so many monitors, making it impossible to compare fine particulate pollution to past years. But in one area that can be compared--ground-level ozone--data show Minnesota's air quality decreasing.

Minnesota's smog levels have continued to edge upward over the past several years. And partly because cars are heavy contributors to the ozone problem, much of the blame is found on our roadways.

Total vehicle trips increased 20 percent from 1990 to 2000 in the seven-county metro area, according to a survey by the Metropolitan Council. The Environmental Health Center estimated that, nationwide, idling and stop-and-go traffic costs motorists 753 million gallons of gasoline a year, about $1,194 per driver.

"Should we ignore five million people in Minnesota who may be idling their cars 5 to 10 minutes a day?" asks Helgesen. "We're turning our attention to addressing some of these smaller things...It's new for individuals to take a role, to say, 'I need to make some changes here and there.'"

Other personal habits contribute to the decline as well: mowers, leaf-blowers, snowmobiles, and even wood-burning fireplaces.

As summer approaches and ozone hazards lurk in the hot, stagnant air, air quality experts are crossing their fingers that the climate deals Minnesota a good hand. Otherwise, they fear, we'll be back in the smog-check line.

"It's pretty inevitable that if we do nothing, we will go into non-attainment," said Clean Air Minnesota's Droessler, whose organization is trying to educate Minnesotans to make air-conscious choices. "We can't just rely on weather patterns."

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