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EPA proposing approval for Maricopa County dust-reduction plan

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PHOENIX – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing approval for a plan by local and state officials to reduce airborne dust in Maricopa County.

The approval would end years of wrangling over the county’s failure to meet EPA standards on PM-10, dust particles that are 10 microns of less in diameter. The conflict jeopardized federal highway funding.

“We’ve been heavily working on this since 2007,” said Eric Massey, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Division. “We’ve ended up with some of the most stringent dust controls in the country.”

ADEQ, the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Maricopa County Air Quality Department collaborated on the Five Percent Plan, which officials said reduced dust emissions by at least 5 percent each year between 2007-2012.

“It means that we can have some certainty, and that’s important, since we’ve been in a sort of limbo for a long time,” said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, chairman of the Maricopa Association of Governments.

The EPA has considered Maricopa County in serious “non-attainment” for PM-10 standards since the 1990s.

Local officials withdrew the initial Five Percent Plan in 2011 when the EPA indicated that it wouldn’t satisfy requirements of the Clean Air Act. It resubmitted a revised plan in 2012.

Key to the decision is the EPA acknowledging that dust storms contributing to particulate pollution are exceptional events beyond the control of local officials.

“The reality it is we have collapsing thunderstorms that push dust into the area,” said Massey, with ADEQ. “We demonstrated to the EPA no matter how much control we have there is nothing we can do to prevent this.”

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said EPA approval of the Five Percent Plan shouldn’t cease efforts to make Arizona’s air cleaner.

“Just because they’ve reached attainment does not mean that the air that we breathe is healthy,” she said. “Arizona and certainly Maricopa County have never been easy places to promote clean air initiatives, and I expect that will continue.”