John Wear column: Improved air quality doesn’t relieve concerns

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 17, 2009

We have read lately that the state’s air quality improved significantly this year. This is true. But there’s more to the story. When we analyze why, we realize that we still have a long way to go.
So why did we suffer less from air pollution this summer? It was a combination of things ó some within our control and some out of our control. Cooler summer temperatures, increased rainfall and the recession played an important role in the number of reduced ozone alert days. So did environmental laws that were instituted earlier in this decade.
We got lucky with the weather. When hot, dry summers return, ground-level ozone levels will go up. When the economy recovers, factories will ramp up production and use more energy once again. When the Environmental Protection Agency institutes more stringent standards, we’ll have to further reduce ozone-producing emissions.
Let’s first look at our recent air pollution history. In 2004, our state experienced a similar period of improved air quality when we had the coolest and wettest August on record in 115 years. However, in the three following years, ground-level-ozone concentration levels for our region were among the worst in the entire nation. In fact, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report for 2009, which was based on three-year averages, ranked the greater Charlotte area (which includes Kannapolis, Concord and Salisbury) as the eighth worst metropolitan area in the United States. The same report ranked Rowan County as the 13th worst county in the entire nation.
Favorable weather wasn’t the only factor contributing to this year’s reduced ozone levels. In recent months, the economic recession and high fuel prices have led to a reduction in vehicle miles traveled. Simply put, we’re driving less, so we’re polluting less.
A similar recession-related dynamic also contributed to our improved air quality. As factories laid off workers, eliminated shifts or closed down altogether, industries used less energy, so power plants produced less and therefore spewed less toxic chemicals into the air.
Finally, we are now experiencing the results of more stringent automobile emission standards and environmental laws enacted a few years ago. Ozone-producing emissions from the state’s coal-burning power plants fell 73 percent between 1999 and 2008 to meet standards established by the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act. Motor vehicle emissions dropped 38 percent from 2002 to 2009.
While this is good news, our work is not over. Experts believe that recent health studies will likely propel the EPA to further tighten air quality standards.
On Sept. 16, the EPA announced that it would reconsider its 2008 ambient air quality standards for ground-level ozone. The standards approved in 2008 were not as protective as those recommended by the EPA’s panel of science advisors, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. This committee, citing 1,700 scientific studies, has recommended that the standards be more stringent in order to protect the public’s health. This recommended standard would be stricter than the 75 parts-per-billion standard the EPA set for ozone in 2008. The 2008 standard replaced the 1997-2007 standard of 84 parts per billion.
It is important to note that, in that 10-year span, our region was never in compliance ó even with the less stringent standard.
So it’s not time to rest on our laurels. Instead, it’s time for a renewed commitment to improving our air quality. We can do it and we must do it: Our citizens’ health and the health of our local economy depend on it.
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Dr. John Wear is executive director of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College.