Ali Mirzakhalili has worked as Oregon DEQ’s Air Quality Division administrator since 2018, but he has been involved with environmental issues for much longer. For Air Quality Awareness Week, we thought it was a good time to ask him about what drew him to this work and how he feels about Oregon’s environmental future.
DEQ: How did you get started working on environmental issues? What was your path to becoming DEQ’s Air Quality Division administrator?
Ali Mirzakhalili: Working in air quality was quite accidental. I started out in structural engineering. I graduated from school and landed a job that I didn’t know was so focused on air. It was the best thing that ever happened. I had to learn a lot on the job and through EPA trainings. Air quality wasn’t as prominent back then as it is now. A career in inspection, enforcement and planning evolved into management. Also, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to live in the beautiful PNW and contribute to air quality here.
DEQ: Why environmental issues? Why are you so passionate about air quality, the environment and climate change issues?
AM: I am passionate about air quality because it has a direct impact on the environment and public health, and there are ways to improve it. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have higher exposure to air pollution and often have more sources of pollution. The health inequities these populations face can also make them more vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. We need to help our communities that are disproportionately affected by air pollution. That is environmental justice.
We can put the right measures in place and shape culture to change attitudes and values around air quality. We’ve all learned not to throw our trash out of our car windows and we can change our behavior on air pollution too.
DEQ: What do you believe is Oregon’s most challenging air quality issue?
AM: Oregon has a unique love affair with wood burning. It had a time and purpose for heating and energy. Fine particulate comes from woodstove and recreational fires. Fires are romanticized here, like the way it was with actors smoking cigarettes in old movies. For those living in Oregon, it’s a drink next to the fire. It’s Oregon culture. We need to find alternatives for recreational fires.
DEQ: Do you believe this is the same challenge across the country, or is there a bigger issue?
AM: Oregon shares the nation’s burden for transportation emissions. More than half of ozone, or smog, comes from mobile sources and it’s more than 40% of greenhouse gases. That’s why we have the Vehicle Inspection Program, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program, the Clean Fuels Program and Employee Commute Options. We need to continue our efforts to reduce miles driven and car dependence.
DEQ: What makes you most hopeful about the future of our air quality?
AM: The trajectory. Things are improving. Our economy is growing and pollution is decreasing. The right leadership is in place at the EPA and in Oregon, and local communities support the efforts to improve air quality.
We have to improve the air so those in Oregon can experience its beautiful vistas. We want to see our state and national treasures. You don’t want to see pollution in your water … you don’t want to see pollution in your air either. We have to eliminate pollution and haze.
DEQ: What should people take away from Air Quality Awareness Week?
AM: People should know where to get information on pollution and how to help improve air quality. People need to know the impact of air quality on public health. There are things we can all do to help. It’s a simple solution … reducing our pollution will help the environment and improve air quality.
DEQ: The last year has been incredibly difficult on a variety of fronts. What do you do when you want to get away from it all, even for a short period of time?
AM: I go to Forest Park to run on the trails. I love the view of the city and Mt. Hood. When it’s not hazy, I say, “Yes, we are doing our job.” If it is hazy, the Air Quality Division hears about it Monday morning.
We wish to thank Ali for taking the time to speak with us. Visit DEQ’s Air Quality Division web page here for more information.
Happy Air Quality Awareness Week to all!
— Tim Wollerman, Air Quality Division communications specialist, and Susan C. Mills, public affairs specialist