Tacoma may have to pay more to maintain clean air

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is considering a change of policy that would require Tacoma and Pierce County to pay a higher rate than other Puget Sound jurisdictions to keep their air clean.

The Tacoma metropolitan area is the only place in the Puget Sound region that does not meet federal standards for fine particulates – primarily soot from wood stoves – and the Clean Air Agency has spent millions over the past few years trying to clean the air enough to have the area removed from federal “nonattainment” status.

The Tacoma area is well on its way toward having that label removed, Clean Air Agency director Craig Kenworthy told members of the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency is certain to require a long-term maintenance plan.

“We must show EPA not just that ‘We made it,’ but that we will not re-violate during the next 10 years,” Kenworthy said. “The question is, where is the fair point, once you’ve spent all that money?

“Should Tacoma and Pierce County pick up more of the cost once we get you to attainment and are in the maintenance mode?” he asked. “That’s the debate the (Clean Air Agency) board is grappling with.”

Kenworthy emphasized that board discussions are preliminary, but he said Tacoma and Pierce County might be asked to pay an extra $200,000 in 2016. The city’s share, he said, would increase to about $130,000 from $90,000.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland told Kenworthy she didn’t think much of the idea.

“I’m not sure we want to pony up all this money,” she said. “It makes the problem more difficult to solve.”

Currently, the Clean Air Agency’s $19 million annual budget comes from a variety of sources, including state and federal grants, fees charged to businesses and assessments on cities and counties, which are charged 56 cents per person per year. Additional assessments are calculated based on the population count and the assessed valuation provided by each county.

Kenworthy told council members that last year the Tacoma area met federal standards for fine particulates – 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air – but just barely.

Air quality was worse in 2013 than it was in 2012, he said, but that was because of usually long periods of stagnant air and low rainfall last winter.

“We stayed under the standard despite the worst possible weather conditions,” Kenworthy said. “The EPA agrees we did remarkably well, considering how unfavorable the weather was.”