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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Frequently Asked Questions about Pierce County's Air Quality Problem

Most of Pierce County was designated a nonattainment area for fine particle pollution in 2009, becoming one of 31 nonattainment areas in the country and the only nonattainment area in the state. This means that fine particle pollution levels too frequently exceeded the national limit, posing public health risks. Here are answers to your most frequently asked questions.

What does "nonattainment" mean?

Simply put, "nonattainment" means that air quality in a particular region does not meet, or "attain", federal health standards. More information.

What causes fine particle pollution?

In the Pierce County nonattainment area, fine particle pollution comes primarily from smoke from burning in fireplaces and wood stoves and exhaust from motor vehicles (trucks, buses, ships, etc.) Industrial operations also contribute a small portion of fine particle pollution. Click here for more information.

Why should I be worried about fine particle pollution?

Exposure to fine particle pollution can pose a range of serious health effects -- ranging from respiratory disease, decreased heart and lung function, asthma attacks and strokes. Click here for more information.

Where is the nonattainment area?

The nonattainment area encompasses the City of Tacoma and most of Pierce County. Click here for a map of the nonattainment area and an explanation of how the boundary was determined.

Why isn't Joint Base Lewis-McCord included in the nonattainment area boundary?

Joint Base Lewis-McCord (JBLM) isn't included in the boundary because of the insignificant amount of particle pollution it generates. There are no wood burning stoves on base, and while some houses have fireplaces, data suggest they are used infrequently.

For more on the rationale to exclude JBLM from the boundary, review page 37 of this report (PDF).

What is being done in Tacoma -Pierce County to reduce air pollution and bring the area back into attainment?

For starters, we have convened a Clean Air Task Force, comprised of people who live and work in Tacoma-Pierce County. The Task Force met from May 2011 through January 2012 to explore solutions to our region's wintertime air pollution problem. The group's final recommendations were delivered to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency in December 2011. Click here to learn more about the Task Force.

Additionally, the Agency offers a number of programs designed to reduce pollution from wood smoke, transportation and industrial sources. These include:

  • Wood Smoke Reduction Program. In 2007, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency launched a wood stove replacement program targeting areas in Tacoma and Pierce County with high levels of wood smoke pollution. This incentive program enabled homeowners to replace their old woodstoves and fireplace inserts with cleaner technology that produces significantly lower to no fine particle emissions. To date, the program has successfully replaced over 1,200 woodstoves in the Tacoma-Pierce County PM2.5 nonattainment area. Through incentives, partnerships and innovative funding approaches, we estimate this program has reduced PM2.5 emissions by over 57 tons (cumulative). More information

  • Diesel Solutions program. Through our Diesel Solutions program, since 2001 we have worked to reduce fine particle pollution from diesel engines. We help partners reduce diesel pollution through vehicle retrofits, replacements, and switching to cleaner fuels. In the Tacoma-Pierce County area, we have partnered with:

    • School districts, to retrofit over 600 public school buses with particulate control devices.

    • Port of Tacoma, to retrofit cargo handling equipment with particulate control devices, and to design a program to replace older trucks servicing the Port with newer, cleaner trucks.

    • Pierce County municipalities, including Pierce County Public Works, Tacoma Parks and Tacoma Solid Waste, to retrofit diesel equipment with particulate control devices.

    • Municipal governments, to help them purchase hybrid diesel-electric bucket trucks and hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, under a Clean Cities grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

      Learn more about our Diesel Solutions program.

  • Compliance program. Our compliance program addresses pollution from industrial activities. Agency engineers and inspectors work with businesses whose activities generate air pollution to ensure that pollution levels are within those permitted by law.

  • Education & Outreach. We offer a number of resources to educate people about air pollution: causes and solutions.

Can I attend Task Force meetings?

The Task Force meetings concluded in November 2011. Meetings were open to the public. Click here for the meeting schedule, or to review what happened at previous meetings.

Is Tacoma/Pierce County the only region in the country facing fine particle nonattainment?

No. Nationwide, there are 31 regions with fine particle pollution levels that violate federal air quality standards. Click here for a map of these regions.

In other nonattainment areas, is wood smoke also the primary culprit?

No. The main contributors to fine particle pollution in nonattainment areas in the eastern part of the country tend to be different than ours out west, and include coal-fired power plants, heavy industry, cars, trucks, and rail.