How DES helps us all breathe a little easier
The air today in New Hampshire is healthier for us to breathe than it was 25 years ago, thanks in large measure to substantial investments and progress that has been made in monitoring actual pollutant levels and improving the quality of the air that we breathe. Today, recognizing the importance of clean air and knowing that we can best manage what we can measure, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services operates a technologically advanced network of 14 air quality monitoring stations strategically located throughout the state to measure levels of air pollutants. They operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in order to provide us with vital data on whether the air is healthy to breathe. The state's long-term commitment to the quality of our air has been a major contributor to protecting New Hampshire's environment and the public's health.
Air pollution monitoring began in New Hampshire in 1962, when the U.S. Public Health Service installed the first air monitors in Berlin to study air quality around New Hampshire's largest papermaking operations. The Air Pollution Control Commission, a precursor agency to the DES, later expanded these efforts. And the creation of DES brought air quality under the umbrella of a single environmental agency, which allowed for greater cooperation with the other programs addressing pollution in our state.
Perhaps the defining moment in our country in addressing air pollution came with the enactment of the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for five "criteria pollutants" — carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
To protect public health, the Clean Air Act required New Hampshire to come up with a plan to reduce air pollution and to establish a permit system. The permit system put limits on pollution emissions from sources such as electric generating plants and factories to ensure that air quality standards be met and maintained at the required levels.
The Clean Air Act was revised again in 1977 and 1990 to address continued national issues associated with pollutant levels that were not meeting the federal health standards, including in significant portions of New Hampshire. In response to these requirements, the state had to implement new pollution control measures and further expand and refine its air monitoring network to track our progress in meeting clean air standards.
Over time, New Hampshire has shown steady improvements in air quality for nearly all pollutants.
DES continues to examine closely where the air pollution that impacts our state originates. We work closely with the transportation and business sectors to ensure proper controls are in place to limit locally generated air pollution. And on a regional basis, we work with other states and the federal government to reduce air pollution that is transported into our state. Most importantly, in many cases we are able to provide real-time information to the public so that proper health precautions can be taken when air pollution levels are of concern.
Our quality of life in New Hampshire is and will always be inextricably linked to the health of our environment, and clean air is a vital component of a healthy environment. Knowing that DES is constantly monitoring the pollutants in our air and, based on that information, taking steps to provide cleaner air and protect our health should make it possible for all of us to breathe a little easier.
Thomas Burack is commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.