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Kicking Up Some Dust: Gritty Southwest Tries to Clear the Air

EPA has stepped in to make Phoenix clean up pollution from unpaved roads - a problem across the region.

Every time Jeff Smith drives home in his 1982 Chevy half-ton pickup, he adds to the thick, brown haze that blankets the Phoenix skyline. But it's not Mr. Smith's truck that's causing the problem. It's the unpaved road he lives on.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says dust from roads, unpaved lots, construction, and agriculture is a major source of air pollution all over the Southwest, and Phoenix is no exception.

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The air quality here not only violates both national and 24-hour health standards, it's been classified as "serious" for particulates, ozone, and carbon dioxide. In the rest of the country, only Los Angeles shares that distinction.

Three weeks ago, the EPA imposed a federal implementation plan to reduce the amount of pollution caused by dust in the Phoenix area.

It requires that dust be controlled on high-use roads as well as on disturbed vacant lots larger than a half acre. Penalties for noncompliance can run as high as $5,000.

Getting out the dust mops

In anticipation, city and county governments have been taking action. The city council recently approved $6 million to pave all 90 miles of its unpaved roads, and Maricopa County officials applied for a grant to beef up enforcement of dust-control measures already on the books.

The state has agreed to come up with a plan to reduce dust from agriculture by June 2000.

The EPA stepped in when Arizona failed to come up with a plan that adequately dealt with particulate pollution, tiny bits of dust and grime generated by vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and dust kicked up into the air.

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Dust-control measures similar to those imposed on the Phoenix area have decreased particulate pollution in other parts of the Southwest.

In Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, 35 miles of dirt roads have been paved in the past three years. The county also tripled penalties for failing to water down construction sites. In 1996, Clark County exceeded the 24-hour health standard 49 times. It has done so only three times so far this year.

California's Coachella Valley, which includes the desert cities of Rancho Mirage and Indian Springs, quickly brought particulate pollution within acceptable health standards after paving most of the dirt roads and passing ordinances concerning dust control on vacant lots.

Paving the desert

Yet some desert dwellers complain they are being held accountable for what they believe is an inescapable fact of life in the arid Southwest.

"You're going to get high levels of dust on a windy day," says Michael Naylor, Clark County's director of air-pollution control.

"People say, 'We're not making the dust, God is. Does the EPA really expect us to pave the desert?' "

But EPA officials say the desert is not the problem. Dust measurements taken in undisturbed areas have found that deserts are relatively dust-free because the soil forms a crust.

It is only when that crust is broken, most often by human activity, that dust becomes a problem.

For the owners of vacant lots, compliance need not be costly, officials say. Solutions can include watering, planting vegetation, and posting signs or fencing off lots to keep cars and people out.

But these measures alone will not be enough to solve the particulate problem in the Phoenix area, officials say. More will need to be done. The state plans to file its comprehensive plan attainment plan by the end of this year.

In the meantime, the federal rules should help.

They are a good first step, says Gaye Knight, an environmental program specialist for Phoenix, if for no other reason than they tell people there is something they can do to improve the quality of their air other than keeping their cars parked.

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