No Respect – Arizona DEQ

And KGUN9 News

Thanks to KGUN9 Tucson for portraying Nogales as a huge smokestack bellowing tons of air pollution.

Thanks to KGUN9 Tucson for portraying Nogales as a huge smokestack bellowing tons of air pollution.

Like most municipal areas, Ambos Nogales have their share of air and water pollution.

The cities are in the “Cocospera Air Basin,” in which particulate matter is generated and spread in the region, especially on windy days. In addition, man-made sources of air pollution caused by fireplaces and end-of-year neighborhood bonfires are held to the ground by cold air, resulting in serious smog.

The Nogales wash, which extends five miles south of Nogales, Sonora, brings rainwater runoff through Nogales, Sonora and north into Nogales, Arizona. On its way through the southern Nogales, human and industrial waste are added to the water, which is transported through Nogales, Arizona via an open-air canal. The polluted water ultimately ends up at a treatment plant in Rio Rico, north of Nogales, for treatment and eventual release into the Santa Cruz River.

So serious pollution risks call for serious pollution notification and mitigation, right? Not so much.

A bad day for air quality in downtown Nogales, Arizona

A bad day for air quality in downtown Nogales, Arizona

In September of 2012, in an example of how government programs are often introduced with much fanfare but soon fail and are ultimately a disservice to citizens, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced a “major environmental and public health initiative.”

ADEQ announces a "major environmental and public health initiative"

ADEQ announces a “major environmental and public health initiative”

Do not bother trying to locate the web page cited in the posting, it has been removed from the ADEQ website. But in case you were wondering, the “major initiative” turned out to be simply hanging a colored ADEQ air quality indicator flag in a Nogales park.

The concept behind the highly publicized effort was simple, to provide a visual indication of the current air quality through flying a flag, the color of which would indicate to citizens how healthy their air is to breathe. See a green flag, know that the air is fine for everyone. When a yellow, orange or red flag is hoisted, take precautions to stay inside and limit your physical activity.

But the program had two issues from the start. First, the site chosen to fly the flag was in a remote location, in a park that is closed during most of the winter months when air quality is at its worst. Perhaps a better choice would have been the unused flagpole in the Nogales library park, a very visible spot along Grand Avenue in downtown Nogales.

Then there is the obvious to consider. When the air quality is bad in Nogales, you can see it. You can also sometimes smell it, and taste it. So when there is a bad air quality day in Nogales, the thick particulate pollution is a very visible indicator that the air quality is not at its optimum levels. You do not need to make a trip to FleisherPark to see what flag is currently flying, you can look outside and see that the air is polluted.

So, would you need to travel to see an ADEQ air quality flag to know about the ambient air quality?

So, would you need to travel to see an ADEQ air quality flag to know about the ambient air quality?

Which leads to the next issue with the program, its implementation. Or lack thereof.

In order for the public to be able to rely on the veracity of flag colors to gauge the current level of air pollution, someone has to change the flag to the appropriate risk color when air quality worsens. This apparently never happened.

In late January of 2013, on a day where air pollution was clearly visible in Nogales (and had been for several days), I took a drive to Fleischer Park (which was closed for the season) to see what the current ADEQ flag color was flying. Surprise, surprise – it was green.

Even on a smoggy day, ADEQ flew the green flag over Nogales

Even on a smoggy day, ADEQ flew the green flag over Nogales

I drove out again a week later, on another day when particulate pollution was thick enough to be seen with the human eye. Again, the green flag was displayed. In fact, it appeared that the flag had never been changed.

So either the messaging between the ADEQ and city employees was not happening, or had never been established. Or perhaps the city employees did not have the time to add this task to their daily routine.

There was clearly no oversight in place, and it soon became apparent that this clunker of a program that had been broadly lauded and widely covered by local news outlets had never gotten off the ground. If this is what ADEQ considers to be a major environmental and public health initiative, the agency is only showing its grand disillusionment and ineffectiveness.

Two months later, in April, I took another smoggy-day trip to Fleisher Park and found that the flag had actually been changed. I suspect that some city employees had seen me taking pictures of the green flag during my February outing and had since updated the flag to new colors – red, white and blue.

Yes, the ADEQ flag had been unceremoniously retired and replaced by the American flag.

After city workers spotted a photographer taking pictures of the green ADEQ flag on smoggy days, the ADEQ flag was replaced with Old Glory.

After city workers spotted a photographer taking pictures of the green ADEQ flag on smoggy days, the ADEQ flag was replaced with Old Glory.

This would not be so laughable if it weren’t for the fact that Nogales faces several environmental pollution issues. And it seems that the best that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality can do with its “major environmental and public health initiative” is to notify citizens is to fly a flag that represents an obvious visual condition (and is never changed anyway) in a remote, closed park.

The most current information regarding air quality study and mitigation efforts on the ADEQ website includes mention of studies performed in 1995 and 1997 (without mention of results or links to data or reports) and a 2005 “Plan of Action for Improving Air Quality in Ambos Nogales,” which is essentially a wish list of mitigation activities. There is no follow-up information on this nine-year-old plan of action.

No respect.

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