Air Pollution Investigation - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Investigative Reporter

Air Pollution Investigation

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Is the air in the Las Vegas valley cleaner today than it was 10 years ago, even 20 years ago? According to air quality officials, the answer is yes, at least for some pollutants.

For tens of thousands of local residents with respiratory problems, the accurate reporting of air quality can be a serious matter.

When Kevin Janison tells us about the day's air quality, it's of vital importance to tens of thousands of locals for whom dirty air is a deadly health threat. To some government officials though, it's like fingernails on a blackboard.

For instance, say carbon monoxide levels in one part of town spike into the moderate category during the morning commute, air quality officials don't report it the same way a weather caster might. By law, they take an eight hour average for individual pollutants, which invariably show a lower level than the commute-hour spikes. Both approaches are accurate, but one just happens to look better.

"People who see that and are sensitive may make decisions they probably didn't need to make if they think the level was elevated and it wasn't. They might carry an oxygen tank around," said Mike Sword, Clark County Air Quality Management.

By some measures, air quality in the Las Vegas valley has improved dramatically in the past 20 years, despite a doubling of the local population, especially for carbon monoxide, a colorless but poisonous gas produced by cars.

According to the county, the carbon monoxide problem here has been solved. Clark county hasn't exceeded federal standards since 1999, but how do we know this to be true?

The county has 21 air quality monitoring stations placed in strategic locations around the valley. As it turns out, only 7 of those monitor for carbon monoxide, and all seven are in the same part of town, east of the strip, in neighborhoods or at schools.

"A lot of monitoring stations measure a localized situation. In areas where there's a lot of traffic there could be a lot of pm 10 but in another part of the valley it's healthy," said Dave Dickens, Clark County Air Quality Management.

Of the 7 monitors in the county, only two could be said to be in areas of heavy traffic. Is this on purpose? Environmentalists say that around the country, local governments have routinely placed pollution monitors in spots that will produce favorable results, for good reasons.

Violating federal standards could mean a loss of highway funds, even a clampdown on growth, something that would seem unheard of here. The federal EPA keeps an eye on local agencies, but critics say the EPA these days is more cheerleader than enforcer.

"The EPA has become less of a watchdog for pollution requirements to make sure areas like ours are protecting health," said Dan Geary, National Environmental Trust.

Does that mean Clark County is manipulating the data? Officials say no way. Three years ago, an independent study told them where to place the monitors -- in the lowest parts of the valley because that's where carbon monoxide tends to accumulate, rolling downhill like water. A monitor at Tropicana and the Las Vegas Strip, they say, shows almost no carbon monoxide, despite all those cars. If a monitor didn't show carbon monoxide, they took it down.

"We're wasting our resources having them there and that's why the preponderance of stations today are over here. From all that we learned, Clark County has achieved great success in cleaning up carbon monoxide, but one look at the brown haze and it's clear there's still a ways to go on other pollutants," said Mike Sword.

In January, a national survey by Readers Digest said Las Vegas has the 12th worst air in the country. The American Lung Association gives us a grade of "D" for the levels of particulates in our air and an "F" for ozone.

Air quality officials say they are making good strides against ozone but particulates, caused by dust, is a tough problem to solve in a desert community.

Email investigative reporter George Knapp at gknapp@klastv.com

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