Big cuts for Missouri's local air pollution control

Friday, August 19, 2011 | 11:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Missouri has cut funding for local air pollution programs in the state's biggest cities, raising concerns that air quality in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield could suffer.

As part of an effort to balance the state budget in June, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed state funding for local air pollution control programs in St. Louis city and county, Kansas City and Springfield. The cuts will save an estimated $1.2 million in the next fiscal year and $1.7 million a year afterward. Effective Oct. 1, the cuts mean that local air agencies lose federal funding that was passed through by the state.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that some fear the cuts could make it harder for the St. Louis region to meet federal clean-air standards.

"If we don't have adequate enforcement and monitoring and follow-up, it's apt to get worse," said Pamela Rice Walker, the city's interim director of health.

St. Louis will likely eliminate 20 of the 24 jobs in the city's air pollution control program. St. Louis County isn't certain yet how many of its 13 workers in that area will lose their jobs.

The St. Louis region has struggled for years to meet federal air standards. The metro area is designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a "nonattainment" area for ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. However, the latest data indicate air quality has improved enough to shed the label. Local officials hope the improvements are not lost due to the funding cuts.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources will take over pollution control and says it can do the job with less money. The agency has contracted with local air pollution control programs for more than four decades to perform much of the work in the three largest metro areas. That work includes permitting, monitoring sources of air pollution and working with factories, service stations, dry cleaners and others to make sure they're in compliance with air quality laws.

DNR plans to add four employees to its air pollution control staff of 125, spokeswoman Renee Bungart said.

The EPA said it remained "confident in Missouri's ability to continue to implement the Clean Air Act."

But city and county health directors and staff worry, envisioning potential consequences such as permit delays, expired permits and less frequent air monitoring. They say complaints about open burning or excessive dust could take longer to handle, if they get handled at all.

Air-quality advocates also are alarmed.

"It will be unfortunate, to say the least, if budget problems lead to reductions in air quality," said Susannah Fuchs, senior director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Plains-Gulf Region and spokeswoman for the St. Louis Regional Clean Air Partnership.

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