Updated at 1:50 p.m. EST Jan. 27.
Problems at a suburban Chicago laboratory forced U.S. EPA to toss out three years of data on airborne soot and to sideline decisions on whether Illinois and parts of Indiana and Missouri comply with the Clean Air Act standard for fine particulate matter.
As a result of the 2013 lab audit, EPA labeled all of Illinois "unclassifiable," meaning people don’t know if they’re being exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution and efforts to ratchet down pollution levels are being delayed.
"It means that the communities don’t know whether they need to be doing more to clean up," said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy at the American Lung Association. "In many of these areas, national steps are taking place, like cleaner diesel going into place and cleaning up power plants more. But we don’t know if that’s enough."
Illinois is not alone for having lab problems. EPA has also determined that air quality in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands was unclassifiable and deferred designation decisions on eight areas in Georgia that include parts of South Carolina, all of Tennessee except three counties and Florida.
The agency said it expected monitoring data collected this year to help it make decisions on Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. EPA said that it discovered data quality problems in Florida that would require more to evaluate.
This is not the first time EPA has found glaring errors at labs that handle air quality data. A 2013 EPA audit found "severe deficiencies" at a lab that analyzes air quality data for Louisville, Ky. Several months of data had to be invalidated (Greenwire, Sept. 18, 2013).
Fine particulates — about 1/30th the width of a human hair — are spewed from the power plant smokestacks and automobile tailpipes. High particulate levels have been linked to lung problems, heart attacks, strokes, asthma and premature death.
In 2012, EPA tightened the fine particulate limit from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, based on information about health effects.
And last month, EPA released its final list of areas that don’t meet that standard.
Areas that fail to meet federal air pollution standards are classified by EPA as being in "nonattainment." That designation compels states to submit to EPA and put in place pollution-control plans and let residents know there’s a problem.
The Illinois "situation seems especially intolerable," said David Baron, managing attorney in Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office. "Three years’ worth of data thrown out the window, and the effect is to leave millions of people unprotected."
‘Cluttered and disorganized’
The Illinois laboratory is operated in Chicago’s western suburbs by the Cook County Department of Environmental Control (CCDEC). The lab has long been used by state and federal environmental regulators to analyze the state’s air quality data. Along with fine particulate matter, it also handles ozone air quality samples.
According to the Illinois EPA, the lab is funded through a combination of grants from the federal EPA and authorized by the state, and by Cook County. The lab operates 15 air monitors in the Chicago metropolitan and analyzes air samples collected statewide.
EPA regularly audits organizations that provide air analysis and data to the agency for regulatory purposes. The agency audited the Chicago-area lab and adjoining offices in November 2013 and completed a report in May 2014.
As detailed in the audit report, the discretions at the lab ranged from relatively minor — "the CCDEC laboratory is very cluttered and disorganized" — to major.
Significantly, workers failed to properly measure lab temperature and humidity in the lab when calculating weights of air samples, directly going against EPA quality control requirements.
"CCDEC has no practical or regulatory means of determining whether the any particular weighing meets the 24-hour average temperature and humidity conditioning criteria for being a valid weighing," Liz Naess of EPA’s Air Quality Assessment Division wrote in a memorandum on audit results.
Workers also failed to properly document samples to establish their chains of custody. At times, trays of filters were placed on unstable, easily tipped garbage cans.
The lab wasn’t operating under an approved quality management plan, and standard operating procedures were incomplete, EPA found.
The lab also lacked an equipment inventory, making it difficult for workers to know what tools were available. In some cases, staffers were using older equipment when new equipment was available. Staff also did not have adequate transportation to get to and from the air monitors located in Cook County.
The department has "experienced a high turnover rate recently and has suffered a loss of institutional knowledge, skills and experience," the audit report says.
Citing the audit, EPA not only labeled all of Illinois unclassifiable but also parts of Indiana that are near Chicago and parts of Missouri near St. Louis. The agency invalidated data from 2011 to 2013.
"At this time EPA does not consider the data from the Illinois network valid for regulatory purposes," Naess wrote.
State urged ‘nonattainment’ label
EPA’s final decision labeling areas whose air was tested by the Cook County lab "unclassifiable" diverges from recommendations submitted by the state of Illinois to EPA at the beginning of the designation process.
In a December 2013 letter, Illinois EPA recommended that EPA designate parts or all of 12 counties in "nonattainment" with the fine particulate standard.
The areas are clustered in northeast Illinois — surrounding and including Chicago and at the Missouri line near St. Louis. The areas had been previously found to be out of compliance with the old, less stringent particulate standards.
"As violations of the annual PM2.5 standards have been measured in these areas, designating them as nonattainment is appropriate," Illinois EPA wrote.
David Bloomberg, manager of the air quality planning section at Illinois EPA, said the state was unaware of the data problems at the lab when it made its recommendations to EPA. Since the scathing audit, the state has worked with both EPA and Cook County to make improvements.
Bloomberg said data generated at the lab have been clean since last July. Both EPA and an independent contractor hired by EPA have reaudited the lab and found no significant problems.
"We continue to work with Cook County to ensure that we are still looking at the data integrity and quality, and verifying it, as we continue moving forward," Bloomberg said.
The Cook County Department of Environmental Control confirmed that the data were now valid, and that it has been trying to get authorization from the state to use newer equipment. It disputed some of the findings of the audit, including that the lab lacked enough transportation to get to field monitors.
EPA requires three years of data to make an air quality determination. Once it has three years of clean data from the Illinois lab, the agency could revisit its "unclassifiable" decision at any time.
Baron of Earthjustice said, though, that he believed that it was probably unlikely that the agency would change its decision regarding Illinois, given past precedent. It’s more likely that the data would be used for designation decisions for a new particulate matter standard; under the Clean Air Act, EPA is supposed to review and decide whether to revise the 2012 standard in 2017.
Earthjustice and the American Lung Association have argued that EPA is compelled by the Clean Air Act to label areas in nonattainment where the most recent clean data show there’s been a violation of the standard.
The groups say Chicago and St. Louis have exceeded the 2012 standard for every three-year period prior to 2011.
They also say data quality issues should never have happened in the first place.
"Honestly, the state messed up. It’s what it came down to," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health at the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association. "It’s embarrassing. You can’t go back and reconstruct that. It is spilled milk. Once the problem was discovered, that was an issue, they fixed it fairly quickly. Unfortunately, no one caught that problem for a long time."
‘Steady march of transition’
Environmentalists are not the only ones to express concern at the issues unearthed at the lab or EPA’s decision to label Illinois and parts of Indiana and Missouri unclassifiable.
A coalition of Indiana steel producers slammed EPA’s decision to wrap two counties in Indiana in the Illinois unclassifiable label because EPA couldn’t tell whether those counties were contributing to a violation in the Chicago area.
Indiana had recommended that Lake and Porter counties be designated as in attainment with the standard.
Nolen of the American Lung Association said that public health advocates were concerned that the data quality issues in this round of particulate designations also highlighted larger concerns about infrastructure problems in the nation’s monitoring network (Greenwire, March 31, 2014).
To be sure, it’s unclear whether the recommendations by Illinois and neighboring states would have been finalized absent the data issues.
While Illinois regulators recommended nonattainment for Chicago, it’s "not clear that the Chicago area ever would have been in nonattainment," Bloomberg of Illinois EPA said.
Newer data that were not accounted for in the state’s recommendation indicated that Chicago’s air was cleaner, he said.
Urbaszewski, who has worked on air issues in Chicago for 17 years, said that his group was concerned about chronic air quality problems in southeast Chicago stemming from stored piles of petcoke from refineries.
But Urbaszewski also acknowledged that the air quality in Chicago has improved over time. Recent environmental initiatives by all levels of government, from federal diesel standards to new local regulations requiring the full enclosure of petcoke piles, are in effect or set to go in effect to reduce levels of fine particulate matter in the area. Many area power plants have reduced or ceased burning coal.
"Every day is a steady march of transition" from coal-fired power plants to renewable energy, he said. "We just want it to go as fast as possible."