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.

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.”

Activists demand a cleaner Pigeon from Blue Ridge

By Julia Mrchant • Staff Writer

A decades-long battle between advocates for a clean Pigeon River and the Canton-based company Blue Ridge Paper Products reared its head last week at a rally where several groups called for further clean-up of the river, which some have referred to as “the dirty bird” due to its pollution levels.

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.

Air time: Students help with ozone study in high elevation garden

When Aaron Patterson graduated from Tuscola High this year, little did he know a big chunk of his summer break would be spent, clipboard in hand, sprawled out in the dirt on a 5,000-foot mountain top, sharing long intimate moments with the leaves of a wild coneflower plant.

Page 4 of 4
Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.