Officials Ignore Threat of Dirty Air (First published as a Reader's View in the Sept. 21, 2000 issue of the Idaho Statesman. Although the people occupying the public offices have changed and the bus system is slowly improving, traffic and air quality are still problems in southwest Idaho. )
The first-page story in The Idaho Statesman, Aug. 22, had some surprising news. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne transporting air purifiers to Salmon? The governor concerned about air quality? Well, in Salmon maybe, where it's politically expedient, at least during forest fires, but certainly not in Ada county.
In March the Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure from local officials, removed the air quality standards that governed small-particle air pollution in Ada County, making our county the only area in the nation without such standards.
The governor, mayor, Ada County Highway District (ACHD) commissioners, the Ada County Commission, and most of the current members of the Boise City Council have refused to speak out against this threat to our health. Why? Because they primarily represent influential construction and development interests. Those interests stand to benefit from the relaxed air quality standards by getting millions of dollars diverted from public transportation, where it belongs, to road building, which increases traffic, congestion, and air pollution.
In 1998 Kempthorne tried to get our votes by promoting childhood immunizations. Unfortunately there is no childhood immunization for asthma. Asthma death rates in the nation have more than doubled in the past three decades along with the amount of particle air pollution. The asthma rate has increased the most in children under the age of four - 160 percent from 1q980 to 1994. Asthma is the chief cause of absenteeism in grade school children. Ellen W. Cutler in her book "Winning the War Against Asthma and Allergies" writes "There is substantial evidence linking specific air pollutants to an increase in illness and a decrease in pulmonary function especially in children."
The governor isn't the only one responsible. In her 1998 campaign, Marlyss Meyer of the ACHD promised to work for an "efficient and safe transportation system," and Judy Peavey-Derr, also of ACHD, promised to "commit ACHD resources to realistic solutions that benefit all of Ada County. " What they've given us is traffic gridlock, a neglected bus system, no real effort made on additional public or alternative transportation options, and the promise of dirtier air.
When people are sickened by contaminated food or water, health officials spring into action. Warnings are issued, the source of the problem is located, and corrective measures taken. Lawsuits are filed by the victims. When people are sickened by dirty air, rarely is anything done beyond the warning stage.
Every person daily takes into his or her body a volume of air hundreds of times greater than the amount of food or water consumed.. That air should be as pure as our food and water. Children in Ada County have as much right to clean air as children in North Idaho have to lead-free drinking water. Officials who undermine clean air standards should be as subject to lawsuits as a fast-food restaurant that serves E. Coli-tainted meat.
State and local elected officials are willing to let the thousands of quarts of air you consume every day be dirtier, so their friends in construction and development can get some juicy financial benefits. In a city increasingly characterized by a darkening shroud of smog, the seemingly endless construction of ugly parking garages, and a very inadequate public transportation system, the least we have the right to expect are intelligent solutions to smog and traffic problems that benefit all residents.
Kenpthrone and other elected officials can continue to shuttle air purifiers to Salmon, but the real test of their integrity and leadership will come when they take a stand for clean air in Ada County. We're still waiting for that to happen.