Las Vegas Sun

June 27, 2019

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Report: Tougher air standards could jeopardize transportation funding

County official says report paints a worst-case scenario

Ozone pollution advisory


An airplane takes off from McCarran International Airport as hotel-casinos on the Strip are partially shrouded in haze in this Sun file photo from 2001.

Hazy Skies

Smoke obscures the Stratosphere in this view from the MGM Grand parking garage Wednesday, May 23, 2012.  Clark County has issued an air quality advisory through Thursday afternoon due to smoke from a fire in western Nevada. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas’s smog problems could lead to a loss of federal funding for critical transportation projects like the 215 Beltway widening and Project Neon if new, stricter air quality standards are imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The report found 10 Las Vegas road projects totaling $346 million that could lose federal funding or have their federal permits frozen under new ozone standards expected to be set by the EPA before the end of the year.

But a Clark County air quality official said there’s little to worry about because the region will have plenty of time to adapt to the new standard before any penalties kick in.

“To be blunt, I think they painted the worst-case scenario,” said Lewis Wallenmeyer, director of the Clark County Department of Air Quality. “It’s a matter of working on it. The only way you’re going to fail is by not making an attempt.”

The Las Vegas area has made major progress over the last two decades in cleaning up dust, carbon monoxide and other particulate matter that fouls the air .

But reducing ozone levels has remained a challenge, made more difficult by the region’s hot temperatures, nearby wildfires and proximity to smog-heavy Southern California.

Ozone is a gas that at ground level mostly comes from the interaction of sunlight, heat and emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Along with other forms of air pollution, it can contribute to health problems for children, the elderly and sufferers of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma and other respiratory diseases.

While cleaner burning fuels and stricter vehicle emission standards have helped the Las Vegas area reduce the amount of ozone in the air, the region still barely meets the current standard set by the EPA.

If the EPA sets a new, lower standards for the amount of ozone allowed in the atmosphere — expected to be somewhere between 65 and 70 parts per billion — Las Vegas will have to work even harder to comply.

It’s too early to know what strategies Las Vegas might take to lower its ozone levels, but finding ways to reduce vehicle emissions by encouraging use of public transportation or energy conservation at home would be a start.

Wallenmeyer said once the new standards are in place, the county will submit a plan to the EPA outlining actions that will bring the region into compliance. Once the plan is approved, the county would have several years to implement it and make improvements before any potential penalties kicked in.

While it is true that federal funding for road projects in Las Vegas could be withheld if the region doesn’t meet the new air quality standards, Wallenmeyer called the chances of that happening “remote.”

“We’d have to pretty much fail to address the issue for that to happen,” he said.

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