Cleanest air on record: Pandemic accelerates long-term move toward cleaner air in N.C.

When President Richard Nixon ‘s signature on the Clean Air Act of 1970 prompted North Carolina to create its Division of Air Quality, air quality was bad in Western North Carolina. 

“Back in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, once summer hit your mountains would disappear,” recalled Jim Renfro, longtime air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, during an interview earlier this year. “You’re outside in the valley looking up, and you couldn’t see the mountains through the haze.”

‘Part of history’: Canary Coalition dissolves after 20 years

After 20 years at the forefront of clean air efforts in Western North Carolina, The Canary Coalition is no more. 

“I’m not bitter about it at all,” said Avram Friedman, who founded the organization in 1999 and served as its executive director until retiring in December. “I’m grateful that they tried, but at this point The Canary Coalition has served its purpose. I think we’ve made an impact, and now it’s time for the younger generation to take hold.”

Progress continues on clean air in WNC: State looks to accelerate shift to renewable energy

In an era when most environment-related news carries a hue of doom and gloom, the saga of air quality trends in Western North Carolina is a welcome exception. 

In the 1990s, ground-level ozone was high — Asheville teetered on the edge of violating federal standards, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park actually did exceed them — and white haze emanating from area power plants made visibility so poor that visitors had a hard time seeing the waves of blue mountains for which the region is named. The tourism industry worried that poor air quality would deter travelers from stopping in the Smokies. 

Containment rising, fire growth slowing in WNC

Despite gusty winds, dust-dry forests and interminable drought, firefighters made significant headway over the last week toward containing Western North Carolina’s explosive wildfire season, jumping on new starts to keep their acreages low and limiting existing fires to minimal acreage growth.

No time to relax: Smokies air quality has improved, but a new ozone standard is on its way

out frBreathing easy in the Smokies is a better bet than it’s been in decades. Ozone pollution is down 36 percent, and particle pollution has been cut in half. The mountain view on the haziest days now extends nearly four times as far as it did in 1998. Streams harmed by acid rain are starting to recover. 

All stats that are cause for celebration, said a group of air quality leaders gathered on Purchase Knob in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last week.

Canton paper mill seeks state aid in costly air pollution upgrades

fr evergreenEvergreen Packaging paper mill in Canton could get $12 million in state assistance to offset the cost of converting from coal to natural gas, if a proposal pending in the General Assembly goes through.

WNC cries foul over air pollution payments going down East

fr nocoalWestern North Carolina for now has dodged concerns that it was getting short shrift in a legal settlement intended to compensate the region for air pollution blowing in from dirty coal plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority in neighboring states.

Bad air days common so far this summer

Feeling a bit stuffy these days? You’re not alone — stagnating weather patterns and excessive heat, coupled with a heavy pollen load, made for difficult breathing conditions for some this month.

Take Joan McDonald, 66, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who was in a Sylva pharmacy recently shopping for allergy medicine. She was surprised to discover her allergies in “high gear” in the supposed pristine mountains of Western North Carolina.

“I can’t breathe,” said McDonald, who was camping in a local RV park. “I’m totally stuffed up.”

She’s got plenty of company. But what is simply a discomfort for people such as McDonald presents potential real dangers for others. Ozone levels have prompted a series of warnings from air monitoring agencies, and it’s early yet in the season.

Air quality officials earlier this month warned of “Code Orange” conditions at elevations higher than 4,000 feet, and yellow — moderate — conditions down the mountains some.

Ozone comes from sources such as automobile tailpipes, “baking” in heat and sunlight on hot days.

Exposure can impair lung function, cause respiratory irritation, aggravate asthma symptoms and weaken the immune system, experts say. Not to mention particulates are creating a heavy haze over the aptly named “Smoky” Mountains, though recent rains have helped improve visibility.

Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said although the air-quality situation obviously isn’t terrific, it’s actually an improvement over the 1990s, say, when air quality was even poorer. Clampdowns on emissions have made a difference.

“We are heading in the right direction,” said Renfro, who has been helping to monitor the quality of the air in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since about 1986.

And there will need to be even more improvements, because the bar will be raised again this summer.

Renfro said yet tougher restrictions are coming down the pike. This increases the likelihood of even more bad-air warnings, though ironically, the air quality could actually be improved, he said.

Canary Coalition aims for the airwaves

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

A Sylva-based environmental organization may be sending its message out over the airwaves.

For 60 days the Federal Communications Commission opened a window to allow organizations across the county to submit an application for a full-powered noncommercial radio license. More than 36,000 organizations applied, which has FCC officials expediting the application process, said Mary Diamond, FCC press aide.

The right choices for healthier air

Roughly 45 percent of people (more than 2.9 million) in North Carolina lives in an area with unhealthful short-term levels of particle pollution ....

— The American Lung Association


Last week was Air Quality Awareness Week, and surprisingly, there is some news about air quality. At least one recently released report noted a decrease in smog in many areas of North Carolina.

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