The following article was originally published in the Midlands Voice section of the Omaha World-Herald Dec. 16, 2016.
The writer, Greg Youell, is executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA).
Whether working, playing or exercising outside, the quality of the air we breathe impacts the quality of life for our families, businesses, health and even future economic development.
On Oct. 1, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new air quality standards and tightened the ozone standard. The updated standard requires metropolitan areas to have ground-level ozone of no more than 70 parts per billion (ppb), a reduction from the previous standard of 75 ppb.
Ozone is found at ground level and in the upper atmosphere. From six to 30 miles above the Earth, it protects us from the sun. But at the ground level, it is harmful to breathing and bad for trees and plants.
In the Omaha metro area, ozone forms most commonly on hot, sunny days with low wind during the warm months of the year.
Like many regulations, the stricter rule has both benefits and consequences. The benefits are more protection for individuals with respiratory problems and potential health care savings. The consequences for being out of compliance can range from economic challenges to mandatory vehicle inspections, more regulation on industry and major efforts to reduce commuter vehicle use.
The greater Omaha region currently is in clean air status with the EPA. This makes the metro area more competitive with areas that are in violation of air quality standards. The new, lower standard means even more metro areas will be in non-attainment.
This gives us a leg up in recruiting new employers who won’t face the red tape here that they do in regions with air quality problems. However, that doesn’t mean we can pat ourselves on the back and walk away.
According to local air quality monitors, the Omaha metro area’s current ozone value is 67 ppb, only a few points away from the new standard of 70 ppb. That’s too close for comfort.
Vehicle emissions are one of the leading creators of ground-level ozone. While giving up a car is not a feasible option for most of us, there are actions you can take that will make a big difference.
If you drive to work and errands, you can carpool and combine several errands into fewer trips. Metro Rideshare is a local program that pairs people who wish to share their commute with another person instead of driving by themselves every day.
Choose cleaner-burning fuels such as ethanol, particularly E85 and biodiesel, when filling up at the pump. Wait until later in the evening to refuel and stop at the click when the pump shuts off automatically. Keep your vehicle in good running order.
You can avoid the traffic crunch altogether by leaving your vehicle at a Park ‘n’ Ride lot and riding on a Metro bus or riding your bicycle. Check with your employer to see if bus or shared-ride benefits are available.
There are other little steps you can take as well. Avoid mowing on ozone alert days or choose electric or manual lawn equipment. Even small engines in gas-powered mowers, leaf blowers and trimmers release as much a 25 percent unburned gasoline into the air. Keep lids tightly on paints and solvents.
By considering the consequences and taking small steps, together we will make a big difference in air quality. This means having a real impact on adult and child respiratory issues, which can reduce health costs.
Consider these facts: Reducing 1,000 vehicles per day on the metropolitan area’s streets and highways would eliminate 255 pounds of carbon monoxide, 35 pounds of volatile organic compounds and 5.7 tons of carbon dioxide. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
As stewards of our quality of life, we each need to do what we can to help. Through the Heartland 2050 process, the Omaha region is planning ahead.
Reducing ozone and improving air quality is also important to being an active, healthy and clean metropolitan area. By each one of us taking a little step, together we can make a big impact.