20 September 2011

The EPA, fireworks and volcanoes

Posted by Jessica Ball

Eruption plume over Mount St. Helens in May 1982. USGS Photograph by Lyn Topinka

So in my newsfeed today, an article popped up about Utah petitioning the EPA not to have smoke from July 4th fireworks included in their monitored air pollution (i.e., the amounts that will get you fined if they spike). The article went on to mention that the EPA grants exemptions for spikes in air pollution that result from “exceptional events”, which are defined as follows:

(i) Affects air quality; (ii) Is not reasonably controllable or preventable; (iii) Is an event caused by human activity that is unlikely to recur at a particular location or a natural event; and (iv) Is determined by EPA through the process established in these regulations to be an exceptional event.

These include natural disasters like storms, seismic activity, floods, wildfires and volcanic eruptions, as well as some allowances for air pollution blown in from elsewhere or resulting from terrorism or war.  Now, I can understand forgiving the volcano-related spikes. Volcanoes are excellent places to find all sorts of nasty pollutants that the EPA regulates (particulates, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrofluoric acid, etc.), and you can’t really blame a state for having a volcano. (I guess this applies to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California, although I wonder if states with dormant volcanoes get grandfathered in?)

Seems like a bit of a weak case to me, if you go by the letter of the law; fireworks are pretty and fun, but they don’t explode on their own, like volcanoes. (And, “exuberant” fireworks displays this summer, given how many wildfires there were out West, seems a little risky in the first place. Take it from someone who had to evacuate from one.) Still, it appears that it’s not uncommon for the EPA to exempt fireworks displays from air pollution regulation, so maybe Utah’s request will be approved anyway.

Finding out about the exemptions for volcanoes was the interesting part for me – volcanologists don’t usually have much interaction with the EPA unless it’s a disaster mitigation or cleanup issue. Those volcanoes, always messing things up.

Here’s a link to the Public Comment page on Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality website – looks like the fireworks enthusiasts are concentrated in Cottonwood and Ogden: