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Editorial: Clean Air Agency plan sets path to breathing easier

Puget Sound Clean Air Agency sets new pollution-reduction goals for health, climate and justice.

By The Herald Editorial Board

On average, each of us takes between 20,000 and 22,000 breaths each day, inhaling and exhaling about 2,000 gallons of air, which travels 1,500 miles of airways on its way to deliver oxygen throughout our body.

And most of the time — as necessary as it is to life — we don’t think about breathing, or what we’re breathing in; unless we’re behind a truck or bus spewing diesel exhaust, or it’s a hot summer day when — increasingly — smoke from wildfires throughout the Northwest irritates our lungs while it turns the sun a hazy red.

On those occasions, the air we breathe is even heavier with tiny particulates and other pollutants that are carried into our bodies along with the oxygen, increasing risks for asthma, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and other diseases.

The good news for most of the Northwest — in particular the Puget Sound region — is that we enjoy good to moderate air quality throughout much of the year, according to the folks that track air quality at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. But on the days when air quality on the maps of weather reports and phone apps creeps from green to yellow to orange to red, the region has seen in recent summers some of the highest levels of air pollution observed in more than 30 years, the agency reported in its most recent “State of the Airshed” report.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, first established in the late 1960s as part of the state’s Clean Air Act, is responsible for monitoring air pollution and permitting and regulating the sources of pollution for the four-county area of Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap counties. For about the last 15 years, it has issued strategic plans to help track progress, outline goals and work with industries, local governments and agencies and environmental and community organizations in reaching those goals.

And while that airshed report showed areas of success in meeting goals for 2020 in the last strategic plan, it has failed to meet key marks, especially as the region’s population has grown and the effects of climate change complicated efforts and resulted in longer, hotter and drier wildfire seasons in the West.

Since the last strategic plan was released in 2014, the impacts of climate change have worsened; the region didn’t meet the agency’s 2020 target to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases — such as carbon dioxide — to 1990 levels. Instead greenhouse gas emissions are now 20 percent higher than they were in 1990.

With some goals left unfulfilled — and new challenges and opportunities at hand — the agency recently released its latest strategic plan, with new targets set for 2030.

Paul Roberts, a former Everett City Council member and current Everett representative on the agency’s board of directors, said the new plan, along with its continuing its focus on air quality, has increased emphasis on climate change and environmental justice and their relation to air pollution concerns, as well as the opportunities and scope of state and federal policy.

“The world is changing rapidly, and if you’re going to look out to 2030 you have to have the flexibility to move in different directions based on those changes,” Roberts said, during a recent editorial board interview.

The agency’s overarching goals for 2030 are to:

Reduce air pollution overall by 20 percent, and reduce the economic impact of air pollution’s health effects by between $500 million and $1 billion;

Reduce the cancer risk from air pollution by half, especially in overburdened communities;

Reduce the socioeconomic disparities of air pollution exposure by half; and

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half, compared to 1990 levels.

Christine Conley, executive director for the Clean Air Agency, acknowledges those goals are ambitious, but passage of legislation and infrastructure investments at the state and federal level — including the federal Inflation Reduction Act and the state Climate Commitment Act — offer new opportunities to meet those targets.

“I’m very excited we wrote it to be as flexible as it is, and we did that by keeping our goals first and foremost,” Conley said.

The plan’s development counted on the participation of the public and other agencies, Roberts noted, particularly that of the Puget Sound Regional Council, which also represents the same four counties and has responsibilities for land use and transportation issues.

“It’ not lost on any of us the importance of land use and transportation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making more efficient our transportation system, which is the largest source of GHG emissions,” Roberts said.

Everett is among the cities working closely with the Clean Air Agency and the regional council toward those shared goals, evidenced by the work Everett has accomplished in a continuing the transition of its fleet of Everett Transit buses from diesel to electric power, said Kimberly Cline, who now serves as the city’s resource development and sustainability manager, responsible for implementation of the city’s climate action plan.

Starting in 2018, with the city’s first purchase of an electric bus, it has since added eight more and this year will add 10 more electric buses to its fleet, replacing diesel-powered vehicles that are past their service life. The result: The buses, while not yet accounting for 20 percent of the miles driven for the transit agency, have reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by 2.3 million pounds, and represent a savings in overall costs per mile and energy costs for Everett Transit.

Everett also is participating in a Clean Air Agency program that offers homeowners $350 to remove wood stoves and another $1,500 to replace them or other non-electric heating with electric heat pumps, which both heat and cool homes.

Even on a day when wildfire smoke chokes the skies — and our lungs — the agency’s latest strategic plan represents hope for cleaner energy solutions and cleaner air over the coming years.

“Our staff gets excited because we have so many tools in our toolbox,” Conley said. “We have compliance, incentives, education programs, and we work with communities on community-based solutions. We have so many different levers to pull.”

Learn more

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency will offer an online information session regarding the 2030 strategic plan and the community comments it heard in drafting the plan from 5:30 to 6:30 pm Wednesday, March 15. Register at

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