This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN — Residents in North Omaha are stepping up to install air quality monitors in the neighborhood, a move designed to empower citizens as coal burning continues in the area.
The Omaha Public Power District determined in August it would need to delay the cessation of burning coal at its North Omaha station for at least a few years, partially due to permitting and approval process delays.
In response, residents with the help of the Nebraska Sierra Club have installed one PurpleAir monitor blocks away from the plant. More monitors are expected to be added soon.
PurpleAir monitors provide the ability to measure air quality in real time, collecting particle pollution for hyper-local networks.
That is advantageous because data from OPPD, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, the Douglas County Health Department and others may not be readily available, said John Crabtree, Nebraska Beyond Coal Campaign representative for the Sierra Club.
Crabtree said the citizen-based science and data acquisition is not meant to be better than academic or regulatory data that is currently required. For example, OPPD is required to monitor air quality already.
“It’s more engaging, and people in the community are more likely to see it, experience it, act on it and use it to influence the decisions that they make and the decisions that are made at the other levels that affect their lives,” Crabtree said.
The initiative is a way for neighbors to help one another and be a more effective way of communicating data not just for Omaha but the state at large, he added.
Air pollution can lead to increased asthma rates and other health issues, the Sierra Club said in a statement, such as more blood clots, heart attacks, lung cancer, diabetes or premature death.
Crabtree said the hope is to improve future health outcomes.
OPPD said in a statement that interest in ambient air monitoring is “consistent with the ongoing conversations we’ve had with the community.” The utility adds it is critical to maintain the use of coal “temporarily” in North Omaha Station Units 4 and 5.
“While OPPD does perform the required monitoring and stack testing at the plant, we know that air quality is impacted by many variables,” OPPD said in its statement. “OPPD appreciates citizens’ input on this topic. We are proud that our employees, retirees and family members also live in the community where the station has produced reliable electricity for nearly 70 years.”
Next week, the Sierra Club will help install a PurpleAir monitor at The Boss radio station at 2314 N 24th St. in Omaha. Organizers are also eying a North Omaha elementary school as a future location.
Crabtree said anyone interested in learning more can connect with the organization.
“Just get in touch with us and ask,” Crabtree said. “We’d be happy to follow up with everybody.”