TAMPA — Florida now meets federal standards for air pollutants for the first time in a decade, and improvements in Hillsborough and Polk counties played an important role in that success, state environmental officials said Wednesday.
The state has been certified by the federal government as meeting National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which track six pollutants dangerous to public health: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.
Florida had fallen out of compliance in four areas between 2008 and 2010, three having to do with sulfur dioxide and one with lead, said Jeff Koerner, the state’s director of the Division of Air Resource Management.
To get back into compliance, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials worked with local industries and communities around the state. Particular improvements were made in Hillsborough, Polk and Nassau counties to reduce emissions in lead and sulfur dioxide, he said.
In Hillsborough and Polk counties, fertilizer companies and a lead acid battery plant reduced emissions. In Nassau County, near Jacksonville, a paper mill cut down on pollutants, Koerner said.
Noah Valenstein, the environmental agency’s secretary, praised the collaborative efforts of industry and the state.
“Clean air is something we take seriously. It’s a big accomplishment. It’s important,” Valenstein said.
Pollution is still a problem locally. Last fall, a New York Times data analysis showed vehicle emissions had climbed 55 percent since 1990 in the Tampa Bay area. And a national analysis by the Associated Press showed air pollution had increased nationwide in the past few years, partially due to widespread wildfires in the West.
Florida, with a population of more than 21 million people, is the most populous state to meet all six federal air quality standards.
Why is the Sunshine State an outlier?
“I hope we’re an outlier in the sense that Floridians take the environment very seriously. The governor takes the environment very seriously. Just as we’re working hard on water quality and preserving lands in Florida,” Valenstein said.
In Hillsborough County, local environmental officials touted the accomplishment as an indication of how Tampa Bay has balanced growth and the environment in recent years.
“This designation by EPA is significant. Despite our region’s considerable growth, we have been able achieve good air quality for our residents, which makes Tampa Bay a great place to live and work,” Janet Dougherty, executive director of the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, said in a news release. “I am proud of the work by DEP, EPA and the regulated community that have resulted in Hillsborough County meeting all the federal health-based air pollution standards.”
Although the federal Environmental Protection Agency has just formally announced total compliance, the process took the better part of seven years, including three years of data collection and extensive modeling by the federal environmental agency.
"It just doesn’t mean that the work has just happened,” Valenstein said.
Maya Burke, science policy coordinator for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said she was encouraged by the state’s announcement, although she hadn’t seen the data yet.
“It sounds like good news. We know that clean air equals healthy water,” she said.
The nitrogen dioxide is the pollutant most dangerous to water quality and marine life in Tampa Bay and one of the six covered in the federal standard. But the nearest monitor for that pollutant is located in Sarasota County, she said.
Burke said getting nitrogen dioxide monitors that can gauge levels of that pollutant in Tampa Bay is a priority for her group.