Waiting to exhale
When will the smog over the Twin Cities go away? How about never.
Looking for the St. Paul skyline but can't find it? Don't worry, it's still there, snuggled up in a comfy blanket of ozone and pm2.5--that is, fine droplets of particulate matter such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, organic compounds, and ammonia.
Every day since last Friday, in fact, Twin Cities air quality has hit a peak in the "moderate" range--a level of air pollution at which "unusually sensitive individuals may experience respiratory symptoms," according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Spokespeople at the MPCA like to pass the blame for our soiled air onto the states to the South, which is not unreasonable. Southerly wind patterns sweep particulate matter up to our own dismal flatlands like so many big-hatted country crooners. The MPCA then issues bland recommendations that metro residents limit their driving and lay off the gas-powered leaf blowers. These advisories have less legal authority than a school crossing guard, and there's no evidence that anyone abides by them. (Major area polluters, it should be said, are asked to do nothing different whatsoever. They have no problem complying with this plan.)
In its 2005 legislative report, the MPCA touts its collaboration with a public-private partnership called Clear Air Minnesota, which represents many of the biggest polluters in the state, along with a variety of city and county governments: "The MPCA notifies CAM partners when ozone or other pollutant levels are forecast to be high. CAM partners, in turn, notify their employees and take steps to reduce pollutants from their own daily operations." The first half of that statement is true: The MPCA floods email inboxes with advisories when air forecasts look ugly. The second half is false: The only steps CAM partners agree to fulfill is forwarding cautionary emails and there's scant indication they do anything beyond that.
The MPCA also likes to point out that our relatively modest pollution levels are a daily occurrence in places like Los Angeles. Yet the truth is that days when the air quality index bleeds up to yellow (the Air Quality Index follows its own Homeland Security-style color code: green, yellow, orange, red, and then a color I can only identify as burnt sienna) are not a rarity in the Twin Cities. Twelve days in May found the AQI spiking into the moderate range. Fifteen days have hit yellow so far this month, with air quality forecasts predicting increased ozone and pm2.5 readings well into next week. So far in 2005, 98 out of 174 days have registered moderate or worse AQI readings.
To put it in the simplest possible terms, unhealthy levels of smog are a daily occurrence in the Twin Cities metro and there's no reason to believe that fact will change any time soon.