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Ozone pollution rises across New Mexico


Wildfire smoke from nearby states covers downtown Albuquerque in August 2020. Unhealthy ozone pollution days increased in Albuquerque in the last three years, according to new air quality rankings from the American Lung Association. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Ozone pollution levels have worsened in the Albuquerque and Las Cruces metro areas and a hot spot in the oil patch in southeast New Mexico, according to air quality rankings released Wednesday by the American Lung Association.

The gas forms when chemicals found in vehicle emissions, industrial sites and wildfire smoke react in sunlight.

Bernalillo County recorded 23 unhealthy ozone days from 2017 to 2019.

The air pollution is concerning in a state with high rates of respiratory illnesses, said JoAnna Strother, ALA’s senior advocacy director.

About 12% of Bernalillo County residents have some form of lung disease, such as asthma, COPD or lung cancer.

“Ozone acts like a sunburn to the lungs, and can cause breathing issues, asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular attacks,” Strother said. “Even healthy people can experience shortness of breath and coughing when these pollutants are high.”

Doña Ana County recorded 66 high-level ozone days from 2017 to 2019.

Three were “red level” ozone days, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard used when air is unhealthy for all residents.

Some of that pollution could be drifting across the border from El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, according to the state Environment Department.

Oil patch pollution

Eddy County in southeast New Mexico is one of only two rural U.S. counties to rank in the top 25 most-polluted places for ozone and particle pollution. The county recorded 49 elevated ozone days during the three-year period, with five “red level” days.

Eddy County is in the heart of the world’s most productive oil basin.

“That could definitely be one of the contributing sources,” Strother said. “We also know that air doesn’t stay in one place. Nearby sources could also be contributing to some of the alarming problems we’re seeing in that rural county.”

Lea, Sandoval and San Juan counties also earned failing grades for ozone pollution in the ALA report.

The New Mexico Environment Department is developing rules to target ozone pollution in the oil and gas industry.

The rules would mandate equipment upgrades and frequent inspections of production sites.

NMED Secretary James Kenny told the Journal Wednesday that human-caused pollution, not natural sources, is driving the unhealthy ozone levels.

“Ozone forms smog,” Kenney said. “Part of the reason we all love it here is that we have great views. Breathing should not be an impediment for enjoying our environment.”

NMED studying sources

Air quality monitors help pinpoint if ozone precursor pollutants are coming from industry or transportation.

“We’re looking at what is creating that pollution, as well as where ozone may be coming in from across the border,” said Sandra Ely, NMED’s Environmental Protection Division director. “We also do emissions inventory, which requires all sources that we permit to tell us how much they’re emitting.”

NMED is building out the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure to help reduce transportation pollutants, and supports Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to enact stricter vehicle emissions standards.

Despite high ozone levels, Albuquerque ranks as one of the cleanest cities for short-term particulate pollution spikes in the ALA report.

The fine particles, which can lodge deep into the lungs, are fueled by fires and fireworks.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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