U.S. air pollution monitoring network falling into disrepair -GAO report

(Adds comments from EPA in 4th and 5th paragraphs)

BOSTON/NEW YORK, Dec 7 (Reuters) – The U.S. air pollution
monitoring network has fallen into disrepair after years of
budget cuts and neglect, leaving tens of millions of Americans
vulnerable to undetected bad air quality from events like
wildfires to industrial pollution, the investigative arm of
Congress said on Monday.

The conclusions from a 2-1/2-year audit by the U.S.
Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirm key findings in a
Reuters special report published last week that detailed broad
failures in the air pollution monitoring system, whose data
guides U.S. regulatory policy and informs the public about
health risks.

Federal funding for the air monitoring network, which is
overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and
operated and maintained by state and local environmental
agencies, has declined by about 20% since 2004, after adjusting
for inflation, leaving it in poor condition, according to the
GAO report.

The EPA said it generally agreed with GAO recommendations,
including a national plan to modernize the network. But nearly
all of the air monitoring network’s infrastructure is owned by
state, local and tribal environmental agencies.

“Therefore, it would be inappropriate to have new
expectations of … our partners without first working closely
with them to define their needs,” the EPA said in comments
contained in the GAO report.

The GAO report said some agencies have reported termite
damage and leaky roofs at shelters housing sensitive but aging
pollution monitoring equipment, and one state agency resorted to
shopping on eBay to find used monitor parts because the
manufacturer had stopped making them.

“Officials from some state and local agencies said that,
with the funding challenges, they struggled to maintain the
minimum level of monitoring required by the EPA,” the report
said.

A portion of the funding for the system of nearly 4,000
monitors comes from the federal EPA budget as determined by
Congress, and the rest comes from state and local governments.

While funding is a major problem, the GAO report found other
hurdles to upgrading the system. Some states have resisted
installing newer equipment out of fear that doing so could boost
their pollution readings, causing them to exceed regulatory
thresholds that would trigger limits to new industrial
development.

The report added that the EPA has no comprehensive plan for
managing the network’s assets, such as a uniform schedule to
replace worn-out equipment, and that some two-thirds of U.S.
counties have no air monitoring devices at all to assess a range
of threats that include wildfire smoke and industrial pollution.

Faulty equipment used to calibrate monitors for ozone, a
component of smog, forced several states to invalidate pollution
data for 2015 and 2016, the report said. And the EPA’s Office of
Research and Development has updated only one method for
measuring toxic chemicals in the air in the past 20 years, it
said.

“Americans depend on an effective air quality monitoring
system to guard against the serious public health threats
triggered by air pollution,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a
Democrat. “These findings point to troubling gaps in the EPA’s
air monitoring work.”

The GAO’s audit began in 2018 at the urging of Whitehouse,
as well as Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat and Senator Susan
Collins, a Republican.

“For too long, the air monitoring system has been ignored,
especially in terms of tracking air toxics, like mercury, in our
communities,” Carper said.

“The State of Maine, located at the end of our nation’s air
pollution tailpipe, is on the receiving end of pollution
generated in other states,” Collins said, pointing out that her
state had “the highest rates of asthma in the country.”

The Reuters report last week found the government’s main
network of 3,900 monitoring devices nationwide has routinely
missed major toxic releases, including from major refinery
explosions.

(Reporting By Tim McLaughlin; editing by Richard Valdmanis,
Diane Craft, Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)

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