Senators Release Watchdog Report Showing Serious Challenges Facing the U.S. National Air Quality Monitoring System

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In case you missed it, yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) released a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showing a number of serious challenges facing the vital national air quality monitoring system.

When adjusted for inflation, the GAO report shows a steady decline in federal support for state and local monitoring efforts that are central to the basic function of the national air monitoring system. It also shows an uneven understanding of concentrations of dangerous air toxics near industrial facilities. The consequences of these problems tend to hit low-income communities and communities of color the hardest since they are often located in industrial areas and rely on underfunded local programs.

“To ensure that all Americans can breathe clean air, we must first be able to effectively measure the pollutants that exist and where,” said Senator Carper. “As we are about to celebrate 50 years of progress with the Clean Air Act, today’s GAO report is a reminder that the EPA can and must do better when it comes to protecting the public from air pollution. This report is a wake-up call that investments and updates are needed in our aging air pollution monitoring system. For too long the air monitoring system has been ignored, especially in terms of tracking air toxics, like mercury, in our communities. For a decade, I have worked with Senator Collins on legislation to improve how we track and monitor mercury pollution, S.181, Comprehensive National Mercury Monitoring Act. Today’s GAO study gives us just another reason why our legislation and other legislation that improves our air monitoring systems need to pass Congress.”

“An effective air quality monitoring system helps guard against public health threats triggered by air pollution.  In downwind states like Rhode Island, missing a ‘bad air day’ warning could mean serious consequences for high-risk groups,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “These findings point to troubling gaps in the EPA’s funding and oversight of the network, which can disproportionately affect people of color and low-income communities.  Congress and the EPA ought to act swiftly on the GAO’s recommendations.”

“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,” said Senator Collins.  “Understanding the occurrence of harmful air pollutants is critical for public health, particularly for Maine which has among the highest rates of asthma in the country.  This report also underscores the need for Congress to pass legislation, such as the Comprehensive National Mercury Monitoring Act I introduced with Senator Carper, that would improve air quality monitoring.”

The national ambient air quality monitoring system measures concentrations of air pollutants and provides standardized information on pollution levels across the country.  This information is essential to helping the EPA and state and local agencies enforce the Clean Air Act and understand the health risks to the public.

Despite national improvements in air quality over the last few decades, many areas still face serious problems.  According to an EPA report based on 2010 population statistics, around 40 percent of the U.S. population currently live in areas that do not meet the Clean Air Act’s National Air Quality Standards for at least one common outdoor pollutant.  It is critical to have data to ensure compliance with our laws and manage environmental and public health risks, the GAO report notes.

A decline in EPA funding necessary to sustain this monitoring system is a serious impediment to collecting this information.  The GAO report shows that federal funding for state and local monitoring programs has remained relatively level over the past 16 years, amounting to an approximately 20 percent decrease when adjusting for inflation.  Declining federal support forces agencies to choose between hiring staff, upgrading to newer technology, and maintaining the current level of service, particularly as air quality monitoring costs continuing to increase.  The report recommends a funding increase to help operate and maintain air monitoring networks across the country.

The GAO report also includes an in-depth examination of the role of the national air quality monitoring system, how it is managed, national air quality trends, and the need for additional information in addition to the recommendations for action listed below:

  • Develop, publish, and implement an asset management framework for sustaining the system that considers key characteristics of effective asset management, such as resources needed to sustain the monitoring system, using quality data to manage infrastructure risks, and targeting resources toward assets that provide the greatest value.
  • Establish an air quality monitoring modernization plan that considers leading practices including establishing priorities, assessing risks, and identifying the resources needed to achieve goals, and measuring and evaluating progress.

The full report is accessible here