MPCA says state’s air quality good, but not for all

Contact: Ralph Pribble, 651-757-2657

Minnesota’s air quality is pretty good, but not everywhere.  We meet all federal standards and most health benchmarks.  Pollutant levels have been going down for 30 years even as the economy continues to grow.  But air quality is not the same across the state -- in some places, it’s not so good.  And it can affect the health of people who live in those areas. 

These are takeaways from a new report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency called The Air We Breathe. The report, updated every two years for the Legislature, summarizes air quality in the state and looks at emerging issues and challenges. 

“It’s great that we’ve made progress improving our air quality, but we need to keep working to make sure all Minnesotans have clean and healthy air to breathe,” said recently appointed MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop. 

As it has for many years, Minnesota meets federal standards for the pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particles, ozone and lead.  Levels of these common pollutants in Minnesota have been falling for years, and periodically the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightens the standards to reflect advances in our understanding of the connections between air quality and health.

But the report also points out that people living in parts of urban areas in both the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota are unfairly exposed to more air pollution.  In addition, existing health inequities make some Minnesotans more susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution.  For example, people of color and indigenous and lower-income people often don’t have adequate access to things that support healthy living, such as healthcare and safe neighborhoods.  When equitable access to these is limited, poor air quality often contributes to, and worsens, health disparities. 

One trend highlighted in The Air We Breathe is how smoke from distant wildfires is affecting Minnesota’s air quality.  Six of the nine air quality alerts the MPCA issued in the summer of 2018 were due to smoke from fires in the northwestern U.S. and Canada. This trend is likely to continue as climate change worsens heat and drought in North America.

Another key finding is how the sources of air pollution in Minnesota are changing.  In the past, air pollution mainly came from big facilities with smokestacks – power plants, factories, etc.  These days, about half of the state’s air pollution comes from vehicles, both on-road (cars, trucks) and off-road (construction and agricultural equipment).  Only about 20 percent of our air pollution comes from smokestacks, and most of the rest comes from smaller “neighborhood” sources all around us, such as dry cleaners, gas stations, home heating, backyard fires, and more.

“The fact that we comply with federal standards is good,” Bishop said. “But from climate impacts to the sources of air pollution, we know we’ll need to continue working across all sectors to educate and to improve air quality.” 

The topic of greenhouse gas emissions and the role they play in climate change is a hot topic in air quality, dealt with in a separate report the MPCA just released called Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 1990-2016.  The report details progress in meeting the Next Generation Energy Act, a 2007 law setting goals for GHG reductions pegged to a 2005 baseline.

The report shows that, while Minnesota’s overall GHG emissions have gone down, we missed the 15 percent reduction goal set in statute for 2015 by almost 10 percent. Emissions fell sharply in 2016, however, with an overall decrease of 12 percent relative to the baseline.

One notable trend in the GHG report: The transportation sector has now pulled even with the electric utility sector as the largest emitter of GHGs, due in part to increases in the miles we drive and to our growing preference for larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles like SUVs and crossovers.