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Air Quality Program

Nonattainment Areas

Washington does not have any areas designated nonattainment for a federal health-based air quality standard.  Tacoma-Pierce County was redesignated to attainment in March 2015 and is in maintenance status for the 2006 daily PM2.5 standard.  

What is nonattainment?

A “nonattainment” classification means that air quality in a particular region does not meet (or “attain”) a federal air quality standard. The federal Clean Air Act is the law that defines the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) responsibilities for safeguarding the nation’s air quality. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA sets limits on how much pollution can be in the air.

These pollution limits are called National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). There are NAAQS for six common air pollutants: particulate matter (also sometimes called PM2.5 and PM10, or particle pollution), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NO2) and lead (Pb).

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review its standards every five years to ensure they still effectively protect human health and the environment. EPA sets the standard based on scientific evidence, and is not allowed to consider the cost of pollution controls when setting them. The standards are based solely on health.

When an area’s monitored air pollution exceeds the NAAQS a certain number of times, EPA designates it as a nonattainment area. This designation is determined by a formula that uses the number of times the standard is exceeded each year. The formula includes three years of data to ensure that an area isn’t designated as nonattainment because of one unusual year. See Air Quality Designations.

What does nonattainment mean for an area?

Nonattainment can:
  • Hinder economic development and tourism.
    Large industries seeking to expand or new large businesses looking to build and bring jobs to the area face additional strict requirements because of nonattainment designation. Some large existing businesses could be required to install additional emission control equipment. These requirements may prompt businesses to locate their operations elsewhere, taking jobs and potential revenue from the region. Tourism could also be negatively affected by nonattainment with the perception the area has "dirty air."

  • Affect federal funding.
    If the state doesn't complete a state plan (State Implementation Plan, or SIP) to improve air quality, the EPA may impose a federal plan (Federal Implementation Plan, or FIP). A federal plan may require solutions that are not the best for the region. That's why it's important for those affected by nonattainment to work together to define solutions that make the most sense for their area within the required time frame.

Nonattainment areas that don't clean up their air pollution could receive cuts in federal transportation funding if new highway projects could add to the air pollution problem. And, EPA could withhold all or part of the grant funds it provides to the state to support air quality monitoring, planning, and control programs.

How does an area get redesignated from nonattainment into attainment?

It typically takes several years for an area to restore its attainment status. When an area is designated nonattainment, Ecology is required to develop a SIP and submit it to EPA within three years. A SIP is a plan for restoring air quality and bringing the area back into attainment status as quickly as possible. The SIP must define what actions will be taken to control air pollution, how these actions will lead to attainment, and project when air quality will meet the standard. EPA then evaluates the SIP for approval.

Once monitoring data show air quality has improved, the state can request that EPA redesignate an area from nonattainment to attainment. EPA can only approve this request if the following conditions are met:

  1. Air quality monitoring data shows the area meets the standard.
  2. Reductions in the area’s emissions are permanent and enforceable.
  3. The SIP developed for the area meets the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act and is fully approved by EPA.
  4. EPA fully approves a 10-year Maintenance Plan for the area.
  5. The area meets requirements of the Clean Air Act for infrastructure SIPs and nonattainment areas.

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