Never have we been as conscious of the air we breathe until this pandemic. We all have been advised to wear masks for protection—to keep ourselves from getting sick from COVID-19. But the fact is, even before this virus came, there was already something in the air that could get us sick—pollution.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, reported a 17.1% increase, from 2009 to 2019, on the risk air pollution has on disability and morbidity here in the CNMI. In 2017, IHME also reported that asthma prevalence on island is at 11.1%—at that time more than double the U.S. average of 5.45%.
Carey Demapan, Clean Air Program branch manager at the Division of Environmental Quality – Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality, recently shared with Saipan Tribune some of the air quality programs they have been implementing in an effort to safeguard all our health by bettering the quality of air in the CNMI.
Just recently, DEQ replaced the old diesel tractor that the Division of Agriculture has been using since 1995, with a brand new tractor with a cleaner burning engine.
“Being exposed to diesel emissions can lead to asthma, respiratory illnesses, and can worsen heart and lung disease, especially in children and the elderly. By replacing old diesel engines with newer more efficient technology, we can help improve air quality and protect human health,” Demapan said.
The new tractor was made possible through an $81,411 grant DEQ received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under the Diesel Emission Reduction Act. Last year, DEQ secured the grant with DOA as a sub-awardee, to replace the old agriculture tractor.
Out with old diesel engines
“The purpose of DERA is to protect human health and improve air quality by reducing harmful emissions from diesel engines,” Demapan said.
USEPA states that DERA grant funds can be used for diesel emission reduction projects like replacing early engine, vehicle, or equipment with certified engine configurations. Eligible diesel vehicles, engines, and equipment include school buses, locomotive engines, marine engines, and Class 5 to Class 8 heavy-duty highway vehicles.
Non-road diesel engines, equipment, or vehicles used in construction, handling of cargo, agriculture, mining, or energy production are also eligible.
“After going through the CNMI procurement process, the lowest bid was selected and a new 67 HP John Deere Utility Tractor with two attachments was purchased. The tractor arrived in the CNMI in August 2021 and has been used since then.”
As for the selection process, Demapan said that of the phone calls they made to numerous public and private agencies, they identified the old diesel tractor owned by DOA to be eligible for replacement under the grant, especially given that the DERA grant has specific requirements on annual mileage, gross vehicle weight rating, ownership time frame, and more to determine eligibility.
Demapan said the engine of the old tractor must be destroyed or made inoperable to ensure that it would not continue to emit air pollutants. The engine block of the old tractor was pierced and then given to a local recycling company to be crushed. The scrap metal will be recycled.
“It is important to phase out old diesel engines because they are inefficient at reducing emissions such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Newer engines, like the one used in DOA’s new tractor, have been tested and are known to comply with EPA’s strictest emission standards.”
Aside from the tractor, DEQ also intends to use a portion of the funding for media outreach on diesel emissions.
Free indoor air quality testing
In addition to phasing out old diesel engines, the Clean Air Program also covers vehicle emission tests for diesel-powered motor vehicles; issuances [or non-issuances] of permits to facilities with air emissions; compliance inspections; indoor air quality monitoring; issuances of notices of violations; and responding to citizen complaints.
“We conduct visible emissions certification for all diesel-powered motor vehicles in the CNMI. Based on local regulations, no diesel car can emit smoke for more than five consecutive seconds so DEQ tests these vehicles to ensure they meet this limit,” Demapan said.
Owners of diesel-powered motor vehicles, when registering at the CNMI Bureau of Motor Vehicles, must provide an emission certificate proving that their vehicles have not only been tested but also passed applicable regulations. Applications are available at the DEQ website, to be submitted at the BECQ office at the Gualo Rai Center on Middle Road.
To check indoor air quality, the DEQ Clean Air Program also offers free radon testing.
“We conduct free radon tests for all residential homes, public buildings, and schools,” Demapan said. “Radon is a gas that comes from the decay of uranium found in soil and rocks. It can enter your home or building through cracks in the foundation. It can be harmful to human health if it accumulates in a room without ventilation.”
DEQ’s Clean Air Program also covers a Permitting Program that permits and inspects facilities that release air emissions such as quarries, asphalt plants, and hotels utilizing large generators. Demapan said that in the future, DEQ hopes to have all facilities in the CNMI permitted while continuing to offer radon and emission test services to the public.
When asked what we, in the community, can all do to help, Demapan asked for the public to be mindful when purchasing vehicles, generators, or other air-polluting engines or machines.
“Engines are categorized by Tiers between 1-4. We recommend that you choose Tier 4 engines since they are the most efficient at reducing air emissions. We also recommend that you service and maintain your vehicles regularly to reduce tailpipe emissions.”
Demapan also encourages the public to schedule radon tests for their homes or buildings, and to be vigilant and send any air related complaints their way.
To schedule a free radon test, or for more information on DEQ’s Clean Air Programs, contact (670) 664-8500, (670) 664-8516, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.