In the 11 years that Kevin Crisler has been tracking air pollution in Northern Virginia, he has rarely seen a summer like this.
"I think this year will stand out as a year that did not fit the average," said Crisler, a senior environmental health specialist in Fairfax County's Department of Health.
Most years, he sees around 10 days where air pollution exceeds standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This year, there have been two, one on June 25 and one last Thursday.
"It's really affected by temperature, sunlight and humidity," he said. This summer's overcast skies, cooler temperatures and near-constant rainfall have brought some relief to the area, which braces every summer for a string of bad air days.
DESPITE THAT relief, officials from around the region are still trying to address the air quality problem. Last week, the air quality committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments approved new measures designed to curb air pollution.
The stakes are high: If the area doesn't cut 38 tons of emissions by 2005, it risks losing millions in federal transportation funds until it brings the pollution problem under control.
Most of the measures approved target consumer products or industrial processes. That means that spray-paint cans, aerosols, gas cans and automobile refinishing equipment will have to be more environmentally friendly.
COG officials say the measures will bring the region into federal compliance by the 2005 deadline. But environmentalists retort that it's too little too late.
"One would think that a gas can seems to be a ridiculously small item," said Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who sits on the air quality committee. "But in terms of the release of the vapor it's one of the more significant ones."
Melanie Mayock, of the Sierra Club's mid-Atlantic chapter, said environmentalists wanted to see the committee approve measures aimed at getting cars off the road.
"There's virtually nothing on transportation," she said.
Of the transportation measures that made it into the plan such as sidewalks and bicycle trails, she said, many have already been completed.
Joan Rohlfs, COG's air quality planning chief, said that the air quality committee's projections would be taken into account by COG's transportation planning board when it meets in the fall to determine which transportation improvements are most needed.
The EPA had earlier imposed a 1999 deadline for reducing air pollution but pushed it back by six years to give the Washington region more time to comply.
The delay, Mayock said, "shows we're very far behind from where we're supposed to be."
Kauffman said the committee focused on what was achievable within the next three years. Significant upgrades to the Metro system in a time of financial strain would not be possible, he said. At the same time, some measures such as parking taxes in the District are unpopular with suburban officials who represent commuters and would be "dead on arrival," he said.
"Certainly there's a high value we all place on public health and air quality but we have to balance that against an incredible array of competing goods," he said.
Channeling large amounts of money into air quality "means the same dollars might not be available for everything from human services to getting our emergency operations center outfitted," he added.
WHETHER THE MEASURES make any difference remains to be seen. So far, COG is relying on computer modeling to determine how polluted the air will be in 2005. That's where the county's air monitors come in.
"Models are only so good and although the model might show compliance with the standard you need to show actual compliance," said Glenn Smith, program manager at the health department's division of environmental health. "That's our major role, just to see how effective our control strategies are."
And so, last Friday, Crisler drove out to Chantilly to visit one of the county's five air quality monitoring sites. Set in a one-story white brick building in a former sewer treatment plant, the site consists of two particulate samplers on the roof and a roomful of computer equipment inside. On this day, there were about 70 parts per billion of ground level ozone — the main cause of air pollution — in the air.
When that reading pushes up to 120 parts per billion, the county has officially exceeded the EPA's standard. Sometimes, officials from COG are able to predict when those bad air days are going to occur and declares those days Code Red days. Other times — such as last Thursday — air pollution peaks on days that have not been classified as Code Red days.
Although this year's weather has kept bad air days away, Crisler is not holding his breath.
"The summer's not over yet," he said.