Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Dirty Air: It's Everyone's Problem  

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2001. Dirty Air: It's everyone's problem. Ashland Daily Tidings. March 12. 4

By Andy Kerr

A guest on Jefferson Public Radio is waxing eloquently about the need for alternative transportation in the Rogue Valley; reinforcing my beliefs that society must switch to cleaner burning fuels and more efficient, economic and convenient forms of public transportation. I am enjoying the enthusiastic rap until I discover who is saying it.

The speaker is a Jackson County Commissioner who opposed the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, supports a return to the bad old days of ancient forest logging, and favors finishing the Elk Creek Dam (which, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, could finish off Rogue River coho salmon).

As one who helped establish the monument, derail the dam and keep both forests standing and fish swimming, I couldn't reconcile how this official could be so right on air quality and transportation, and be so wrong on forests and salmon.

By the time he was talking about the benefits passenger rail between Grants Pass and Ashland, I had reconciled his obvious gross disregard of land quality and water quality and apparent high regard for air quality. Maybe he knows someone who is sick due to air pollution. However, given he is also a proponent of population growth in the Rogue Valley, it's more likely that he understands how the federal Clean Air Act works.

The Clean Air Act is unique to all other laws as it recognizes local air as a finite resource. National air quality standards are set for a variety of pollutants: particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur organic oxides, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead.

Air quality, as measured in each airshed, must meet these standards. (The issue of whether the standards are high enough to actually protect the public health and view is not the subject here [they are not].) If an airshed consistently violates clean air standards then government regulators can impose increasingly stringent rules. If that's not enough, then sanctions—such as cutting off federal highway money—can be imposed.

Since growth greatly depends on highways, growth would essentially stop if such sanctions were imposed. Under current law, the only way to stop growth is to grossly pollute the air. (Not that I'm recommending the strategy.)

Many airsheds are often hovering near the national limits. As pollution levels rise (along with population), local government imposes additional regulations to reduce per capita pollution. To “make room” for new capitas, each of us will need to limit use of wood stoves, fireplaces, lawnmowers, lighter fluid, barbecues, paint, cars, etc.

These requirements to reduce our per capita pollution make—and do not make—sense. Running a gasoline lawnmower for 60 minutes is like driving a car for a hundred miles. We must reduce our per capita pollution. Nevertheless, under the current scheme (which assumes population growth is a given), doing so doesn't mean the air will get any cleaner; it just won't get any dirtier.

The option of not growing to maintain air quality (not to mention all those other qualities) has not been considered. If Oregon weren't growing in population, then no additional controls would be necessary to maintain air quality. Any new controls would improve air quality.

My wife and I bought a Toyota Prius, a gasoline-electric hybrid sedan (52 mph city, 41 mph highway). EPA classifies it as a "Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle" (SULEV). It emits 10% of the pollution of an average car. While we've significantly lowered our per capita pollution (and equally raised our green bragging rights), the air in the Rogue Valley won't be the cleaner for it. In fact, all that we've really done is to make room in the Rogue Valley airshed for nine-tenths of another car, or nine more if they are all Priuses.

Andy Kerr of Ashland is founder and president of Alternatives to Growth Oregon that contends that growth is no longer desirable or inevitable.