Breathing easier in Cleveland: How Tighter Standards Could Change the City’s Air Quality Issues

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Carleton See, an environmental monitoring specialist, changes filters on an air monitoring device at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

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By Christopher Johnston

While running for Cleveland City Council Ward 3 seat last year, Ayat Amin spent a lot of time canvassing neighborhoods and talking to residents about environmental issues. 

“What came up time and again in our conversations that really resonated with people was air quality,” she said. “Specifically there were a lot of residents who felt they were experiencing poor air quality but didn’t know what to do about it.”

When she inquired about signs of air pollution in their neighborhood, residents told her they would have to wipe soot off of their outdoor plants or off their houses. In Ohio City, residents of Lakeview Terrace, one of the oldest public housing complexes in the U.S., complained of particles in the air from the roughly 1,000 trucks passing through, spewing exhaust and stirring up dust that landed on their cars, homes and in the air they breathed every day.

After she lost the election to incumbent Kerry McCormack, Amin convened an informal citizen action group that met regularly to research available data and discuss air pollutants such as methane and lead in the air. They talked with representatives from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and Cleveland’s Division of Air Quality, which was helpful and “wanted the same things we wanted.” However, the group stopped meeting after about five months.

“Our group stalled at the beginning of last summer because we were struggling to determine what we could actually do about air pollution,” she said. “There wasn’t enough data for us to prosecute, and the city was already working on getting more monitors. We didn’t have definite sources of pollution data that we could mobilize people in the neighborhood and say, ‘Hey, your air quality is poor, and here’s the proof of where the pollutants are coming from.’”

Carleton See, an environmental monitoring specialist, carries containers full of filters for the monitoring equipment at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

Since then Amin has continued to research the problem and looked at what other cities are doing to address air pollution. She found an innovative study from Portland, OR, using moss as an air pollution detector. Because moss plants don’t have roots, they absorb whatever substances are in the air on their surfaces, thus serving as a cheap air quality monitor. 

“The researcher and a large group of volunteers collected moss samples throughout the city on a very granular level in about a ten-block radius,” Amin explained. “They were able to create an almost block-by-block map of pollution hot spots, and having that data enabled Portland residents to go to their City Council and advocate for legislation.”

Seattle later replicated the project, enlisting mainly high school students to collect the moss samples. She is still studying the feasibility of doing a similar study in Cleveland neighborhoods. Amin, who works as a product manager at ChargeNet Stations, a renewable energy company, was recently named to a new position as co-director of Environmental Justice with the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. If the moss study proves feasible, she said, it will be implemented as one of several environmental projects with the county organization.

“I’m very happy with what the people who work for the city [addressing air quality] are able to do with the resources they have,” Amin concluded. “But as a resident, I don’t know if it covers all of the needs.”

Carleton See, an environmental monitoring specialist, changes filters and records data at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

New Air Pollution Control Code in the works

One of the barriers to identifying specific sources of air pollution violations for Amin’s citizen group was Cleveland’s greatly outdated Air Pollution Control Code, which hasn’t been revised since the 1970s. 

According to Christina Yoka, chief of air pollution outreach for the Cleveland Department of Public Health, the department is currently working through the public engagement process that she expects to continue into spring of 2023, and a revised code will be proposed by the end of 2023.

“We want to update the code with items that will benefit the community and that the community wants to see in the air code,” Bryan Sokolowski, chief of air monitoring, Ambient Air Monitoring Section for the Department of Health.

His department, which includes permitting and enforcement divisions, relies on those city codes, along with state of Ohio Administrative and Revised codes, to enforce air quality concerns throughout Cuyahoga County.

“We cover the whole county,” Sokolowski said. “If there’s a violation of an air permit within the city and the violator does not come into compliance, then the city would pursue the enforcement process through the law department.”

A device used to monitor different types of gases at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

Cleveland scores low air quality grades from ALA

In April, the American Lung Association released its “State of the Air” report:“Cleveland’s Air Quality Gets Worse, Residents Exposed to More Unhealthy Air Pollution.” ALA’s report ranked Cleveland as the 27th most polluted city for ozone pollution. 

In terms of short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be “extremely dangerous and even lethal,” according to the ALA, Cleveland’s ranking worsened to 58th. 

The city’s metro area ranking did improve significantly for year-round particle pollution, though. The city jumped from 14th to 42nd worst, “taking the Cleveland metro area well off the list of dirtiest cities in the nation for this pollutant measure.”

Sokolowski said that ozone is a challenge for several reasons, though his department is only responsible for stationary sources, and most ozone pollution is generated by mobile sources. However, he believes that an imminent national standard update will improve Cleveland’s air quality in the near future. 

Approximately every five years, the EPA reviews its pollution monitoring standards to determine whether they need to be lowered or changed. Currently, the EPA is reviewing the Particulate Matter 2.5 standard, which measures very fine particulates two and a half microns or less in size, small enough to get deep into a person’s lungs. Generally, it is produced from fuel combustion, coal, natural gas, diesel or gasoline. The other type of particulate matter the city monitors is PM 10, a larger, coarser material that typically shows up as soot or dust on cars or plants.

“Some early indications are that the standard might get lowered,” Sokolowski said. “If it does, we will probably be in nonattainment for PM 2.5. in our area. So that would mean more restrictions on facilities, and the Ohio EPA would need to develop a state implementation plan on how we’re doing to be in attainment for that pollutant.” 

Sokolowski expects to hear by the end of this year or the beginning of 2023 whether or not the standard is going to change.

Carleton See, an environmental monitoring specialist, changes filters on an air monitoring device at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

Cleveland’s sizable air quality monitoring system

The Clean Air Act of 1970 started mandatory air quality monitoring, and Cleveland maintains a fairly robust air monitoring operation that Sokolowski said is always searching for ways to improve. 

The George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site on the corner of East 14th St. and Orange Avenue stands just south of downtown Cleveland. The facility is one of 14 such sites throughout the city, all of them smaller than this flagship site, that combined hold 56 different pieces of equipment, The Division of Air Quality is responsible for monitoring the U.S. EPA’s criteria pollutants: lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and larger and smaller particulate matter as well as ozone.

As the Chief of Air Monitoring, Sokolowski oversees a crew of 12 operators and technicians – currently down one – who ensure that the equipment is up and running 24/7 to maintain vigilance of the city’s ambient air quality. In addition to monitoring, the division is also responsible for permitting and enforcement of air quality standards at facilities throughout Cuyahoga County.

“The primary purpose for monitoring ambient air is to determine if our city/region is in compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards,” he said. “Without constant air monitoring we would be unable to determine if these health-based standards are being met. Then we would not know if additional restrictions are required to improve air quality.”

There Terminal Tower can be see from the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

New monitors will increase air quality data for PM 2.5

Through the American Rescue Plan that passed Congress in March 2021, the US EPA received $20 million to invest in air monitoring throughout the country. As part of that grant, Cleveland will obtain three more continuous, real-time data particulate matter analyzers to complement its three existing monitors. 

“We’ll have an additional three PM 2.5 monitoring sites within the next year from that funding,” Sokolowski said.  “Those are the gold standard of monitoring equipment, and they will give us a good real-time, hourly understanding of what the current air quality is.”

The entire state will gain roughly 30 new such monitors during the next year from the grant. In the meantime, Sokolowski’s department plans to install low-cost sensors to identify any pockets of the city where these monitors would be most effectively placed to enhance air quality monitoring.

“The more data we can get, the better we can understand the air shed not only in Cleveland, but Cuyahoga County,” Sokolowski said.

Citizens can check their monitoring any time for Cleveland and every US city at AirNow.gov.

Some of the sampling equipment used at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

Why ozone is an ongoing challenge

“We have had some tremendous gains in the past 50 years and the past 20 years as our air quality continues to improve,” said David Hearne, commissioner of air quality, Cleveland Department of Public Health. “However, we still have some areas like ozone where we need to continue that improvement.”

Ozone is particularly tricky, Hearne said, because it is not emitted by one source that can be regulated. Rather, it forms in the atmosphere when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) blend with sunlight and heat to generate ozone. Ozone causes a serious health concern because when it is formed, it creates an additional oxygen molecule that then prevents human blood systems from being able to absorb oxygen, causing respiratory difficulties. 

Those substances, known as ozone precursors, are emitted by mobile sources such as cars, trucks, construction equipment, trains, etc. 

Cleveland’s geographic location on a Great Lake facilitates the ozone problem. “We only have exceedances in the spring, June and early July,” Sokolowski said. “The lake is very cool in those months, so that sets up an air boundary, and all of the pollutants emitted in urban and industrial centers get blocked by that cool air over the lake. As the lake warms, pollutants can disperse better, so we don’t have exceedances.”

The EPA allows four exceedances per year, and Cleveland surpasses that number every summer. Ozone season used to be April 1st to September 30th, but about five years ago, the EPA expanded that season, adding a month to each end to account for the sun and high UV readings even in October in some states.

A device used to measure air speed and direction at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

Cleveland’s has 72 parts per billion of ground-level ozone during the ozone season, the EPA requires 70 parts per billion.

Cleveland is the final remaining ozone non-attainment area in Ohio, according to John Mooney, division director for Air and Radiation Division of Region 5, U.S. EPA Chicago. “To have only one non-attainment area in a state the size of Ohio with the industrial mix is quite a remarkable accomplishment,” he said, adding that during the past 10 years, Cleveland has reduced its ozone about 10%.

However, he added, other Midwest cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee also remain in nonattainment for ozone.

According to Anthony Chenault, media coordinator, EPA, Northeast, Central and Southeast Districts, Columbus, the Ohio EPA also uses highly sophisticated air monitors to monitor for various pollutants across northeast Ohio. These federal reference method monitors produce the type of data that can be compared to the national air quality standards. 

“When looking at more long-term data, currently the highest reading ozone monitor in the area is at a monitor in Eastlake,” Chenault said. 

“It takes about three hours for ozone to be formed,” Sokolowski explains. “So by the time the air mass over Cleveland moves, and it usually moves west to east, it ends up over Lake County, and that’s why they’re seeing those high values of ozone on the Eastlake monitors.”

Air quality data tables with hourly updates are available at the Ohio EPA’s pollution control and data website

Ohio EPA also provides funding in the Cleveland and Akron areas for lawnmower change-out programs, Chenault said. Owners can exchange their gasoline lawnmowers for credit towards all-electric models. 

Antoine Gates, an instrument technician, monitors the equipment inside the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

NOACA plans future solutions to improve air quality

As the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the area, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) plans transportation funding for the region. The agency’s work has a significant impact on the region’s environment, too, specific to transportation infrastructure and movement.

“We’ve been evaluating the air quality issues, and currently about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions are caused by mobile sources,” said Grace Gallucci, NOACA’s executive director. “That is the single largest source of that pollutant, so we then are able to focus on mobile emissions and look to remediate the air quality concern.”

The reverse of the Division of Air Quality, NOACA has jurisdiction over mobile emissions only, not stationary sources.

Last year, NOACA completed its long-range plan, Equity Northeast Ohio 2050 (ENEO2050) that outlines projects, programs, plans and policies from 2022 to 2050 that they developed and are now looking at implementing.

One of the key goals is to reduce usage from 94% single-occupancy vehicles to 89% by increasing reliance on multimodal transport options including public transportation, bicycles and pedestrian modes.

Bryan Sokolowski, chief of monitoring in the city’s Division of Air Quality, stands outside the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

“We have about 1,000 items in the plan, including very specific projects related to long-range public transit and significant projects related to pedestrian and bicycle transportation such as trails and bicycle-protected trails that have been defined and programmed into the plan with funding, so they will happen,” Gallucci said.

With an eye to the future proliferation of electric-powered vehicles, plans include roughly 50 Electric Vehicle charging stations that will be located at public parks, libraries, City Hall, etc. for convenient access. A priority was placed on ensuring that “environmental justice communities” were accommodated in all transportation plans, as well.

“We want to make sure that we are offering facilities for minority and low-income families,” Gallucci said. “When we talk about air quality, we know it is an issue of equity and that the worst air quality is in the environmental justice communities who live in denser urban and industrial centers where they are exposed to more mobile emissions. So we want to make all of [the] improvements for everybody, but we also recognize that some of the largest areas of concern are environmental justice areas.”

NOACA also created a Regional Climate Action Plan to provide more detailed initiatives to help keep the city in attainment for ozone by taking more vehicles off the road, for example, and expanding the highway system throughout the region. There are also long-range plans to extend RTA’s rapid transit system from Hopkins International Airport to different parts of the region such as Elyria and Medina, but those have not been funded yet.

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that passed in November 2021 included $100 million for transportation infrastructure improvements in Ohio. The act also included $66 billion to support long-range improvements and expansion for AMTRAK, but funds from the five-year plan have not yet been allocated to individual projects in Northeast Ohio. 

Bryan Sokolowski, chief of monitoring in the city’s Division of Air Quality, walks the instrument deck at the George T. Craig Air Quality Monitoring Site in downtown Cleveland. (Gus Chan for Eye on Ohio)

This story is from the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative. NEO SoJo includes 16-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including Eye on Ohio, which covers the whole state.

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