Southgate Commerce Park will one day include a dance studio, an orthodontist’s office and other businesses. But on Friday, the site was no more than leveled dirt severed by 16-foot sewer trenches and lined with crusted mounds of recently moved earth.
At the construction site on Germann Road in east Mesa, “dust cop” Michele Gumenik of the Maricopa County Air Quality Department met with Ladell Call, owner of ALC Builders. As the two drove around the site, Gumenik spoke with Call about how he mitigates dust pollution.
Call told her how his workers spray the dirt with a water hose as it is moved, which helps tame its siltiness.
He said he also ensures that the piles of moved earth, after watering, preserve a crusted upper layer, which keeps them from blowing away. And he pointed to a temporary gravel driveway where vehicles enter and exit the site, helping to shake dirt from tires before vehicles enter public roadways.
Gumenik was visiting the site because neighbors had lodged a dust complaint with her department.
Breathing in Maricopa County was dangerous last week. Friday marked the week’s fourth high-pollution advisory issued by health officials.
An advisory lets residents know that air pollution is forecast to reach unhealthy levels, possibly to such an extent that it exceeds levels determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of the four days last week, an exceedance level was recorded only on Thursday.
Especially bad last week were the levels of particulate matter in the air, including dust and car exhaust. For each advisory day, officials recommended residents cut down on using their vehicles. They told healthy folks and those with respiratory illnesses alike to limit their outdoor activities.
Still, freeways were packed during rush hours and bulldozers rumbled at
future sites of strip malls and neighborhoods.
Perhaps the pollution warnings didn’t penetrate the smog.
To induce more Valley residents to take heed, the Air Quality Department is fortifying its compliance arm.
Gumenik said there were only eight inspectors in dust compliance a few years ago. Now there are 30.
Gumenik alone inspects about 300 construction sites on her beat, plus her share of the county’s 5,000 vacant lots. On “No Burn Days,” which restrict wood burning during high-pollution advisories, Gumenik spends her evenings on fireplace patrol.
County officials are especially worried about particle pollution because it is linked to the proliferation of respiratory illnesses, decreased lung function and sometimes premature death, as EPA research suggests.
The EPA dictates that measurements of particle pollution shouldn’t exceed recommended limits more than three times in a three-year period.
Maricopa County logged this year’s 26th exceedance on Thursday. In the last three years, the county has counted 46 exceedances.
The recent surge came in 2005. Between 1998 and 2004, the county never exceeded federal standards for particle pollution more than 10 times in a year, according to the Maricopa County Association of Governments. In 2005, it did so 19 times.
Though Air Quality Department officials are concerned by the first major surge since the mid-1990s, they can only recommend changes in driving behavior. And there are no limits to the number of construction permits the department issues, Gumenik said.
Ultimately, the cleanliness of the air that Valley residents breathe depends on the behavior of those who breathe it.
But officials can educate the public, and they can issue warnings and notices of violations.
Though inspectors conduct routine inspections, much of their work involves following up on complaints.
In 2005, the Air Quality Department conducted 2,019 investigations into particle pollution complaints, of which 1,603 were for dust and 207 were for burning. The count has jumped to 3,152 so far in 2006, with 2,766 for dust and 216 for burning. Gumenik credits the increase in dust complaints to the fact that more people are educated about particle pollution, and more know there’s an outlet for complaints.
“There must be four times the complaints there were two years ago,” Gumenik said. “We’re so busy, we can’t keep up.”
She said she conducts between two and 12 inspections per day, depending on the size of the site and the number of violations. A site might take 10 minutes to check out, while a large violator might require several hours of education.
But increased awareness and better enforcement haven’t fixed the problem.
The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2006 gave Maricopa County a “D” for particle pollution and an “F” for ozone levels. Air Quality Department spokeswoman Holly Ward said the EPA has mandated the county decrease its levels of particle pollution by 5 percent every year until it meets clean-air standards.
County employees are working with MAG, state and municipal governments to craft a plan to achieve these reductions. The Air Quality Department will present a report in late January with an inventory of what and who contribute to particle pollution, and in what amounts.
By late summer, the department expects to be collecting public comment, Ward said. A final plan for reduction is due to the EPA by December 2007. Implementation must begin by January 2008.
THE ROLE MODELS
While officials grapple with rules and regulations, Valley Metro gives residents the means to lessen their pollution contributions with public buses, ride-sharing and — one day — light rail.
Some 625,000 of the county’s 1.6 million commuters travel to work at least once a week using a mode of transportation other than driving alone, according to Valley Metro communications officer Susan Tierney. About 16 percent of commuters car pool, and the county has one of the fastest growing van-pool programs in the country.
Tierney said that in 2006, 6.6 million miles per day were not traveled because people telecommuted, worked a compressed work week or took the bus, biked, walked or car-pooled. This represents 335,000 gallons of gasoline saved daily, about $800,000 saved in gas costs daily and 226,000 pounds of pollution that weren’t released into the air daily.
Every action matters.
Gumenik estimated that if every construction site complied with county guidelines, the construction industry’s contribution to particle pollution could be cut by 50 percent.
At the end of Call’s inspection on Friday, Gumenik praised his work practices.
“The site looks good in terms of stabilization, and there’s no track-out,” she said. She asked him to keep a dust control log daily, which she’d check during future inspections. And she said she’d be back.
How to complain
To report a possible air quality violation, call (602) 506-6010 or visit