Pollution blooms from the burning of discarded automobile batteries in Houston.
Even as the U.S. Embassy warns about Beijing's smog, federal weather officials here are proposing to cut the nation's two-day ozone and smog forecasts, ones behind local warnings to the sick and elderly about "Code Red" days for air pollution.
The proposal to shelve the $5.4 million "National Air Quality Forecast Capability" forecasts in March has drawn protests from public health officials in 22 states, the cities of Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Denver, as well as Midwestern officials of the Environmental Protection Agency. Public health officials from coast to coast rely on the National Weather Service forecasts to warn asthma and respiratory illness patients about poor air quality and to meet Clean Air Act responsibilities to reduce smog.
"This termination is proposed due to the current fiscal environment," said NWS acting Director Laura Furgione in a statement last October when the cuts were proposed. The proposal was made after the White House last year knocked the program's budget down to $1.7 million, and with the Obama administration now proposing cuts down to $865,000 in this year's budget. A House proposal for 2013 would fund the program at $4 million, still less than what it costs to run, while a Senate one would match the president's $865,000 offer.
The weather service is reviewing the public comments on the proposal, which ran 98% negative. A decision won't be made until the federal budget year officially ends on March 27, according to Maureen O'Leary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the weather service.
"Oh my gosh! I use these predictions to breathe!" said one patient with breathing problems in the anonymous comments submitted to the agency. Ground-level ozone, created from the combination of smokestack and tailpipe emissions, inflames airways in asthmatics and damages the lining of the lungs. Fine particle smog, the other pollutant predicted by the forecasts, causes haze and is linked to lung cancer and heart disease. Poor air-quality kills about 50,000 people prematurely every year nationwide and adds about $150 billion in health care costs, according to NOAA.
"The benefits are so pronounced against the cost savings that this makes little sense," says Penn State meteorologist Gregory Garner, who has found states and locales benefit from averted emergency room visits due to the widely used forecasts. Basically, under the proposal, health officials would still know from air monitors when the current days were smoggy ones, but would be unable to warn patients and industries of likely next-day conditions for ozone and "fine-particulate" smog. Counties would not know whether they should initiate free bus services on "Code Red" days, or tell people days not to burn trash. "This is really going to have a high impact," Garner says.
Places such as Provo, Utah, right now see the predictions feed into forecasts of unhealthy air. The National Weather Service provides its air-quality forecasts twice daily, looking ahead 48 hours. The forecasts essentially predict wind and air patterns on a grid over the country, with grids spaced about 7.5 miles apart, better than hurricane prediction models. Killing the program would waste the last decade's investment in creating the forecasts and also recent improvements in their accuracy, Garner says. "We have to run the model to make it more accurate," Garner says.
Ending the forecasts will cost businesses more money nationwide, says air-quality expert John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)in Washington, D.C., because they feed into Environmental Protection Agency regulations requiring utilities and industries to take added steps to improve air quality, such as idling power plants. Without the forecasts, industries will run generators on unhealthy days, throwing their region out of compliance with Clean Air Act requirements and potentially forcing every local business to install more costly scrubber equipment on smokestacks. "It's unusual for me to say this," Walke says. "But without these projections, industries will be spending money needlessly to improve air quality in a way that isn't warranted."
In the 77 pages of public comments on the proposed cuts, only two support killing the federal air-quality forecasts, and none comes from environmental officials. One is from a business that sells its own pollution predictions. "Private forecasts are prohibitively expensive for patients and local air-quality authorities," Garner says. "They aren't a solution."
Dan Vergano, USA TODAY