Progress made by Tacoma and Pierce County in improving air quality has persuaded the federal Environmental Protection Agency to remove the area from its most-wanted list of polluters.
Effective Tuesday, Tacoma and Pierce County no longer will be classified as a “nonattainment area,” a label that has been not only embarrassing for the city and county, but which also makes economic development more difficult.
“There were a lot of smiles here when we got the news,” said Joanne Todd, communications manager at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. “But there’s a lot more work to do. We have to keep the levels down or we will go right back into nonattainment.”
The EPA lifted the designation on the basis of a 10-year action plan prepared by the Clean Air Agency and the state Department of Ecology.
The plan is designed to reduce ultra-fine particulates in the air — which the agencies say mainly are from smoke due to burning in wood stoves and fireplaces.
The air over Tacoma and Pierce County easily meets federal standards most of the year. But during winter, when more households burn wood for heat, stagnant air traps smoke close to the ground and causes air pollution to build rapidly.
A task force made up of Tacoma and Pierce County leaders and community members assembled in 2011 to develop a road map for bringing the area into attainment for fine particulates.
Based in part on the recommendations of that group, the Clean Air Agency and the Ecology Department came up with a plan that outlines how to keep the area in attainment for the next 10 years.
The plan, which was approved by the EPA, requires air quality regulators to:
• Continue to call and enforce burn bans.
• Continue to remove uncertified wood stoves and fireplace inserts and replace them with cleaner heating devices.
• Implement a “smoke rule” passed by the Legislature last year to ban uncertified wood stoves in the area, starting Sept. 30.
• Continue education and outreach efforts.
Officials at the Clean Air Agency played down the significance of losing the “nonattainment” label, instead emphasizing the work ahead.
“We don’t want people to get the idea that everything is fine now and they can relax,” Todd said.
In 2006, there were 22,000 uncertified woodstoves in the Tacoma-Pierce County nonattainment area, Todd said.
About 3,000 of those have been recycled or replaced through the Clean Air Agency’s outreach programs, which offer cash or replacement heating equipment to those who qualify.
“It is exciting to see the community’s hard work and commitment to clean air pay off,” Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello said in a prepared statement. “While we all still have work to do to reach our health goals, it is encouraging that Tacoma is reclaiming its status as a federal attainment zone with healthier air quality.”
Mello is a member of the Clean Air Agency’s board of directors.
County Executive Pat McCarthy praised residents who helped the county meet the clean air standards by replacing uncertified wood stoves, following burn bans “and in some cases even stopped burning wood entirely.”
“Our residents will be healthier and our local economy will be stronger because our air is cleaner,” she said. “But the work to reduce pollution is not done. I am committed to working with partner agencies to make sure we stay in compliance.”