Las Vegas Sun

July 27, 2017

Currently: 88° — Complete forecast

Dust pollutes Las Vegas air

Construction is one of the major contributors to dust pollution in the Las Vegas Valley, but elected officials are loathe to do anything about it in this period of rapid growth.

Of the 50,000 tons of dust a year that gets into local air, 19,000 tons come from construction, according to Clark County Health District's Air Pollution Control Division.

"That amount from construction is the minimum in the air if all the construction sites are obeying the rules," said Michael Naylor, division director. "The real problem is construction is dusty no matter how clean the operation is."

The long-term solution is for elected officials to issue fewer building permits, Naylor said.

But Las Vegas, Clark County, Henderson and North Las Vegas frown on growth-containment proposals. Just the opposite, growth is encouraged as the engine for a healthy economy.

But the act of approving every proposal could ultimately be the equivalent of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, Naylor said. Unchecked growth kills air quality, and federal monitors could step in and kill growth as a consequence.

The air-quality issue could cripple growth long before Southern Nevada runs out of water or developable land, Naylor said.

Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones, however, said if the city cuts housing construction, there will be no place for workers to live, which could stunt growth, cause a recession and lead to higher property taxes.

"You can't stop building because you have a demand for housing," Jones said.

The city and county have regulations that require workers to water down construction sites, but the hot summer sun evaporates the water too quickly, she said.

"I think everybody is doing the best they can," Jones said.

Federal view

The federal Environmental Protection Agency ranks Clark County as one of the nation's worst areas for dust pollution. That's in addition to its black mark for winter smog caused by carbon monoxide.

The EPA faulted the health district for failing to put enough staff or funding into solving pollution problems.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, ranks Las Vegas eighth among the largest U.S. cities in the rate of premature deaths caused by air pollution.

"July 26 was our worst day for (dust) ever," Naylor said. "Then Thursday, all monitors for at least one hour were reading unhealthy. That's extremely unusual."

On both days, early morning winds gusted, then the air stagnated in time for rush-hour traffic, he said. Thursday's dust cloud stuck around for hours.

Dust hotline

On particularly bad dust days, Naylor warns senior citizens and people with lung problems or heart disease to remain inside. Influenza, bronchitis and asthma can get worse from dust.

People who have to go out on bad air days can help attack the problem. When construction crews raise clouds of dust, citizens can report them, Naylor said.

By calling 385-1291, the health district will send an enforcement officer to investigate the complaint and cite any offenders, Naylor said. If the investigator can record the dust violation, contractors will face fines.

The Clark County Air Pollution Control Hearing Board's penalty for violating dust regulations has gone from an average $700 fine last year to $1,500 this year, Naylor said. Ten to 15 penalties are collected each month.

But those collected fines don't all go to help clear the air. The health district only keeps about $18,000 a year -- the rest goes into the general fund.

"We'd much rather that money go to pave some roads to help clear the air," Naylor said.

But the Nevada Legislature refused to allow any more collected air pollution fines to go into a pollution cleanup fund as late as 1995. "We may be asking them again in 1997," he said.

No matter what steps Southern Nevada takes to start clearing the air, it will take more money and more effort on everyone's part. Jeff Harris, a county planner, said the County Commission will be asked to consider a number of steps along with the county Health Board and the cities to start clearing the air.

Clark County has asked the Desert Research Institute for a chemical analysis of Southern Nevada's air, due next month. Researchers paid particular attention to East Charleston Boulevard near Eastern Avenue, a notorious bad air basin, and North Las Vegas.

Brain trust

There is help from a new source. That's where the Southern Nevada Air Quality Initiative can offer expert advice, said Troy Wade, chairman of the Nevada Alliance for Defense, Energy and Business.

Wade has plenty of military and energy contractors hanging around after nuclear weapons experiments stopped in 1992 at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

This scientific group culled from Defense and Energy department contractors is lending some cutting-edge techniques to predict and prevent dustclouds, Wade said.

"This all got started in a casual conversation," Wade said. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California, Bechtel Nevada as Test Site manager and the Desert Research Institute are pooling resources.

"We saw that there is no industry in Las Vegas causing air pollution," Wade said. "The pollution is all self-generated, all from cars and construction."

The group, meeting since October, has gathered all pollution studies done on the valley.

"Now we have to ask, 'where are the holes?'" he said. "That's where we are."

The group has one solution to tackle dust. By watching weather patterns -- the way scientists did when the government exploded nuclear weapons at the Test Site -- people could move out of harm's way.

If citizens had enough warning, they could stay indoors when the desert's dust started blowing, and construction sites could be watered or even shut down, Wade said.

"It's going to take money," he warned. "Solutions may be difficult to identify and expensive to implement."