Air quality in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties has improved to meet federal standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday.
The counties are among nine areas in California to meet the 1997 national health-based air quality standard for smog, also known as ground-level ozone, within their regulatory deadlines.
“Reducing smog is a major step forward in meeting Clean Air Act goals,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, referring to landmark 1990 federal legislation. “Residents can breathe a little easier knowing that the air is cleaner in these counties.”
In addition to meeting the 1997 national ozone standard, Tuolumne County joined Amador and Sutter counties in attaining a stricter standard put forth in 2008.
Meeting the 1997 standard are Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Ventura counties, as well as portions of Kern, Nevada and Sutter counties.
“This is a huge, huge announcement,” said Tuolumne County Air Pollution Control Officer Vicki Helmar. “Do I think that we can maintain the standard? I certainly hope so.”
Helmar said her office has been communicating with the EPA in recent weeks about what plans it must put in place to maintain the standard.
The cleaner air appears to be one rare upside to a diminished economy. Helmar said fewer people are driving as a result of the downturn.
“A lot of ozone is because of vehicular traffic and things like that,” she said.
EPA figures show ozone levels declining sharply between 2008 and 2010 in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
Helmar said pollution blown eastward and upward from the Central Valley in what is known as the “overwhelming transport” effect has long been a burden on air quality in the Sierra foothills.
In recent years, the county also has benefited from fewer intense forest fires, she said, and cars on the road that are manufactured to higher emissions standards.
Calaveras County Air Pollution Control Officer Brian Moss could not be reached for comment Friday.