"How much clean air do we need?"

That was the question Lee Iacocca asked Congress when he was vice president of Ford in the late 1960s. He objected to the federal Clean Air Act, which passed in 1970, because he thought it would cripple manufacturing.

Milestones of cleaning up Washington's air

In the beginning

A few years earlier, in July 1967, Washington had passed its own Clean Air Act. The Department of Ecology didn’t exist yet. Instead, the responsibility to protect the state's air was distributed among a number of county-based air pollution control boards that enforced federal, state, and local air quality rules.

Before those local air pollution control boards were formed, our skies were filled with dense smoke and particles coming out of smokestacks from industry. Air pollution was so bad (how bad was it?) it created visibility hazards on the roads and foul smells in cities of all sizes.

“Imagine hanging your white sheets outside to dry and coming home to find them covered in mud droplets, or your car covered in soot,” said longtime Air Quality Engineer Al Newman. The lumber industry had old inefficient boilers that spit out harmful, black, carbon-filled smoke. In addition, concrete plants and other industries had less advanced pollution control technology, and rules weren’t as protective of human health as they are today.

Some of the air pollution control boards merged into larger agencies serving major regions, like Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Others stayed county-based, such as Benton, Spokane, and Yakima. Counties that didn’t form boards were regulated by the state Air Quality Control Board, which eventually became part of Ecology when the agency was formed in July 1970 — five months before EPA was created. We’ve got bragging rights! It was the same year as the first Earth Day. 

That state Air Quality Control Board and the air quality control section from the Washington Department of Health became Ecology’s Air Quality Program. Our mission is to “protect, preserve, and enhance the air quality of Washington to safeguard public health and the environment, and support high quality of life for current and future generations.” Ecology's Eastern and Central Regional Offices now regulate air quality in much of Eastern Washington, except Benton, Spokane, and Yakima counties. Northwest Regional Office regulates San Juan County. Tribal governments protect air quality in their areas, with technical assistance from EPA.

Keeping the air clean

Ecology and seven local clean air agencies help keep the air clean by:

  • Developing and enforcing rules about air quality.
  • Regulating harmful emissions from vehicles, burning, and industrial activities, and reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
  • Issuing air quality permits. Inspecting – and fining, when necessary – businesses and industries that have those permits.
  • Tracking air quality using about 70 air monitoring stations.
  • Developing plans to maintain and improve air quality.
  • Informing the public about air conditions.
  • Educating the public about making healthy, clean air choices.

Everyone deserves to breathe clean air. 

Washington clean air agencies map