EPA ozone standards

Limit prior to 2008: .08 parts per million

New limit set in 2008: .075 parts per million

New limit pending in 2010: Between .06 and .07 parts per million

How WNC stacks up

Ozone levels have improved gradually in WNC over the past 10 years. They can vary widely from year to year depending on weather, however. Wetter and cooler summers see fewer bad ozone days that hotter, drier ones.

To determine whether WNC meets the new ozone limits, an average of three years worth of ozone readings — from 2008 through 2010 — will be used.

Here’s the levels for ozone monitoring stations in the region based on the three-year average from 2007-2009. Ozone is worse at higher elevations and surprisingly consistant across the mountains.

Waynesville    .068 parts per million

Bryson City    .064 parts per million

Asheville    .069 parts per million

 

High elevation sites

Purchase Knob    .074 parts per million

(near Hemphill Knob above Jonathan Creek in Haywood County)

Frying Pan    .074 parts per million

(near Mount Pisgah off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Haywood County)

Mount Mitchell    .074 parts per million

(highest elevation on the east coast)

• A monitoring station has been recently installed on Barnet Knob on Cherokee Indian Reservation and will be providing data this year.

New standards to shine light on WNC air quality

New federal standards for ozone will be issued by year’s end, and the verdict will determine whether Western North Carolina is out of compliance with air quality.

Western North Carolina likely can’t fix its air quality problem alone. Charlotte, Knoxville and Atlanta are all out of compliance under current ozone limits, let alone the more rigorous ones that are pending. Smog is carried from these metropolitan areas into the mountains.

In addition, antiquated, dirty coal plants operated by Tennessee Valley Authority from Ohio to Tennessee to Alabama send pollution this way.

“Is there enough we could do in North Carolina to achieve the standards?” asked Paul Muller, regional supervisor for the N.C. Division of Air Quality in Asheville.

Probably not, he said. But since WNC won’t be alone in its violation of ozone standards, a multi-state approach will be inevitable.

“Knoxville has a problem. Atlanta has a problem. So they are going to have to be making reductions as well,” Muller said.

Ozone levels have declined over the past decade, proving that tailpipe regulations and new emissions standards gradually being imposed on coal plants can work, according to Muller.

“How do we keep getting cleaner so we can meet the tighter standards?” Muller said. “In a lot of ways we depend on the federal government to put in reduction programs that will affect a larger area.”

But attempts to impose tougher pollution limits on coal plants have met resistance in court. The benefits that would otherwise be realized by new regulations are taking longer, Muller said.

While it is easy to point fingers at dirty coal plants or wafting smog from urban centers, it will ultimately take everyone working together to improve air quality — including steps by everyone living in the region.

“Air quality is impacting our health our environment and our economy,” said Bill Eaker, environmental specialist with Land of the Sky Regional Council. “We are going to have to take action to reduce energy consumption and reduce fuel use for our cars and vehicles.”

Ozone, which is the main ingredient in smog, is worse in the summer. The Land of the Sky Regional Council hosted an ozone season press conference last week, as it does every year at the outset of the ozone season. Speakers at the event educate the press on the latest air pollution rules, tout success stories and share various initiatives underway throughout the region to improve air quality.

Limit in flux

An ozone standard is set by the Environmental Protection Agency every five years. New limits came out in 2008, but have been in flux ever since, due both to lawsuits and a shift in policy from the Bush to Obama administration.

When reviewing the ozone standard, the EPA relies on a panel of scientists to recommend a safe limit both for human health and the environment. But in 2008, the EPA bucked the scientists and instead settled on a slightly laxer number.

“This was a big deal because EPA usually takes the advice of its science committee,” according to Vicki Sandiford, an air quality specialist with the EPA in Raleigh. “The law requires EPA to explain in a rational way why it chose not to follow the recommendation of its science advisers.”

Apparently, the explanation was lacking, since lawsuits by environmental groups promptly followed. The scientists on the panel even weighed in expressing anger that their advice was not followed.

When Obama took office, he appointed a new EPA director, and a policy shift followed suit.

“It is the goal of this administration to have science in the forefront of the regulations it considers,” Sandiford said.

So it was back to the drawing board. The new ozone standards will be announced by August (see box).

There are 1,200 ozone monitors in the United States, mostly in urban areas. The EPA wants to see 270 new monitors installed throughout the country.

With many areas in violation of the old ozone limits, it is unclear how quickly even tougher limits will be complied with. Charlotte has been in violation of federal ozone standards since 1997. Why such a long leash to meet the standards?

“Partly because of the difficulty for many areas in meeting the standard,” Sandiford said. “They want to give area time to put programs in place and see the results it keeps it from being so burdensome.”

 

Ozone forecast

To get your ozone forecast, go to ncair.org. Click on “air quality forecast.”

EPA takes aim at Canton paper mill

A water pollution permit for the Canton paper mill has come under fire by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The pollution permit is up for a periodic review by the state. The EPA isn’t pleased with the standards the state has proposed and is calling for tougher limits.

If the state doesn’t ratchet up the controls, the EPA has threatened to step in and handle the permit itself. The EPA gave the state 90 days to respond with a rewritten permit. Such intervention is rare.

The state environmental engineer who wrote the draft permit was barred from speaking to the press after making controversial comments to other newspapers last week. Sergei Chernikov told media outlets that the standards suggested by EPA would come with astronomical costs that are financially out of reach for Evergreen Packaging. He also defended the mill and spoke out against the tougher requirements being sought by EPA. After the comments appeared in print, the Division of Water Quality press office took over media inquiries related to the EPA intervention.

“The information Sergei expressed was the information he had when he designed the draft permits. But we have other information being evaluated,” said Susan Massengale, public information officer for the Division of Water Quality. “It is a much bigger picture.”

Three hearing officers will ultimately decide on how stringent the state permit is, not the engineer who wrote the draft permit. The suggested limits in the draft permit are only part of what the hearing officers will consider when making a final decision, Massengale said.

They will take into account numerous comments from the public input period, from environmental groups to mill supporters. The EPA falls in that category as well, Massengale said.

“It has submitted its comments for this process the same as any other commenter,” Massengale said.

But unlike the other commenters, the EPA carries regulatory weight and can mandate pollution limits by taking over the permit.

Massengale would not comment on what limits the EPA wants tightened up.

“I am not going to parse the language. That is up to the hearing officers,” Massengale said.

To Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for NC, the EPA recommendations don’t go far enough.

“If you were going to bother objecting to the permit, why not do so in a way that could accomplish a lot more?” Taylor said

For example, the color limit recommended by the EPA of 36,000 pounds a day is only 1,000 pounds less than what the mill is discharging now. And while the EPA is taking a tougher stance on temperature, it would only look at monthly averages, which does nothing to rein in spikes of hot discharges that can lead to fish kills, Taylor said.

During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $330 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by expensive lawsuits. Environmentalists and downstream communities want the mill to make further improvements. But instead, it seems progress has plateaued.

As for Evergreen Packaging, they released a written statement about the news saying that the EPA comments were part of the permit process, which is designed to consider all voices and viewpoints.

“We look forward to continuing to work with regulators on finalizing a permit to continue the progress that has been made,” the statement read.

 

What the EPA wants

Evergreen paper mill in Canton sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.

The EPA wants the mill to reduce the dark color of its discharges slightly beyond what the state is calling for and wants to see a study of color going into the Pigeon River. The state was willing to reclassify the mill as being in compliance with the state’s color standards and no longer in need of a color pollution variance, but the EPA maintains that the mill should not come out from under the oversight of a color variance.

The water the mill puts back in the river is much hotter than the river’s natural temperature. The EPA also wants tougher limits on the temperature than the state asked for.

The state also was willing to drop testing of fish tissue for dioxins, since there is no longer a warning against eating any of the fish species from the Pigeon. But the EPA still wants to see testing every other year. The state proposed monitoring dioxin discharges based on a monthly average, but the EPA wants a maximum daily limit imposed as well. The EPA also called for more monitoring in several areas the state was willing to overlook.

Green Energy Park earns EPA recognition

Jackson County’s Green Energy Park has received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Project of the Year award, giving the one-of-a-kind methane gas recovery project some much deserved recognition.

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