A Congressional watchdog agency found that a network of air quality monitors, run by state and local governments to comply with federal law, is aging, underfunded and could understate public health risks.
The Government Accountability Office report found that reduced funding from states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has led agency employees to use aging and discontinued equipment that has resulted in the invalidation of some air quality data.
The number of air quality monitors in the state of Indiana and total monitored pollutants has decreased by about 19% since 2007, and the overall allocated budget for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the agency that oversees the monitoring network, has decreased by 22%.
“Officials and representatives we interviewed from all of the selected state and local agencies and all of the nation’s regional air quality associations said that the current funding levels for air monitoring make it a challenge to sustain their monitoring programs and the levels of service their networks provide,” the report stated.
IDEM officials were not selected for the GAO’s interviews, but the agency did receive information from agencies of which IDEM is a part, like the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies and the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium.
Many agencies have had to “triage” their investments at the expense of the long-term health of the monitoring program, including choosing between hiring enough staff to complete state- and federally-mandated monitoring or updating older equipment.
The GAO said they found officials from state agencies using equipment designed to last about seven years for 15 to 20 years, making it more difficult to maintain. In some instances, officials have had to cannibalize other equipment or find the parts on eBay to keep the monitors running at an affordable cost.
Those equipment problems have repercussions for upholding state Clean Air Act responsibilities and letting residents of those states know the true air quality they are living in.
According to the GAO, several states had to invalidate ozone data for 2015 and 2016 due to old calibration equipment affecting the quality of the data.
A team of investigators from Reuters found evidence that air quality monitors around the country routinely missed air pollution, including massive pollution events like refinery explosions.
The team found that the monitoring network did not identify pollution risks from 10 of the biggest refinery explosions over the past decade, even when thousands of people were hospitalized and the refineries themselves reported toxic emissions to regulations.
The Indiana Environmental Reporter looked at emissions events in two Indiana counties with the most monitors to see if the monitoring network would detect the additional pollution.
On Sept. 24, 2019, firefighters battled a blaze at a west Indianapolis junkyard for several hours. A black tower of smoke, visible throughout the city, rose up high into the air for most of the day.
In Indianapolis, air monitors captured an increase in chemicals found in salvaged vehicles. Monitors spotted increases in ethyl acetate and vinyl acetate, chemicals found in car paint and plastic; 1,3-Butadiene, a chemical found in car tires; n-Hexane and n-Heptane, chemicals found in gasoline; and other toxics.
In the early hours of Nov. 16, 2020, firefighters in Gary responded to a call where about 100 vehicles in a lot caught fire, beginning an 11-hour battle to control the blaze. First responders also found a large number of tires destroyed in the fire.
The state’s air monitoring network caught increases of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The full list of toxics monitored that day has not yet been updated by the EPA.
The number of monitoring sites and amount of pollutants monitored have been on the decline for more than a decade, but the largest decline came during the Trump administration.
IDEM has been required to submit an air monitoring plan since 2007, when the state reported having 90 monitoring sites with 183 monitored parameters, or pollutants. The number of sites and parameters has fluctuated during the Bush, Obama and early years of the Trump administration, but began to fall drastically in 2018.
During 2017, the state of Indiana had 83 monitoring sites and 188 monitoring parameters. In 2019, the number of sites stayed the same, but number of parameters fell from 188 to 181.
Between 2018 and 2020, the state had 10 fewer monitoring sites and 32 fewer monitoring parameters, a 12% reduction in the number of monitoring sites and a 18% reduction in the monitored pollutant parameters.
The decline in air monitoring coincides with a substantial decline in the overall IDEM budget.
IDEM’s allocated budget when it was first required to submit air monitoring plans in 2007 was $303.8 million for two years, or about $151.9 million a year.
This year, the agency was allocated $118.2 million. More than half of that amount, $63.5 million, went to the agency’s payroll.
IDEM said the monitoring network was budgeted $14.5 million for the 2020 fiscal year and $14 million for fiscal year 2021.
The agency’s tight budget became even tighter as a result of economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered a 15% funding reduction to IDEM and the other state agencies after a drop in revenues during the pandemic shutdown.
“IDEM has a legal obligation to continue operating most of our existing air monitors. Regardless of the agency’s budget, IDEM will continue to provide sufficient resources to ensure coverage within our monitoring network,” the agency told the Indiana Environmental Reporter.
IDEM has requested $17.2 million for its air monitoring budget.
It’s unclear whether the austerity period will continue at the agency and whether that will affect the state’s air monitoring capabilities. The state legislature is holding budget committee hearings to determine how much each agency will get allocated during the next legislative session, which begins next month.