Hazardous ozone days are becoming a thing of the past
Each spring, the Land of Sky Regional Council hosts an ozone season kick-off event to provide updates on air quality conditions, trends and emission reduction programs.
In past years, the conference has focused on the ozone air quality color code guide, a daily alert that helps people gauge whether it would be safe to be outside.
The codes ranged from “green” for good to purple for “very unhealthy.” Last year, there were no days where the air was deemed unhealthy, and only 43 days when conditions fell in the moderate range, with air quality good for 281 days.
The good news is a sure sign that air is getting cleaner in the mountains, and is a trend those in the air quality business say will only improve in the future.
Part of last year's good report is tied to the amount of rain in the region. Since sunlight is needed to produce the ground-level ozone, part of the good ozone news for 2013 was attributed to the rainy weather. Last year was the third wettest recorded in 119 years between June and August.
However, Bill Eaker, the organization’s senior environmental planner, said the improvements will only continue in light of the federal and state regulatory changes, along with voluntary programs that have been implemented.
“This is an arena where you don’t always see those kinds of results,” he said.
Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Department of Environment and Health air quality division, said the amount of nitrogen oxide emissions from all power plants in North Carolina decreased from 245,000 tons a year in 1998 to a 28,832 for 2014.
Sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced from 489,000 tons annually to a projected 21,884 tons a year for 2014 during the same time period.
Both emissions combine to with sunlight and volatile organic compounds to form ground-level ozone, known to aggravate a variety of respiratory conditions.
Holman said the emissions have trended down in recent years, and noted the 2008 Clean Smokestakes Act, a bipartisan effort that passed the N.C. General Assembly five years ago, has made a big difference in the resounding air quality success story.
Every part of the state, with the exception of the Charlotte area, is in compliance with federal standards, Holman said, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing standards with an eye toward tightening them even more.
The protective standard could be decreased from the current 70 parts per billion for ground-level ozone to 60 parts per billion, something that would better protect human health, she said.
Reducing the standard to this point could put Haywood into a nonattainment area, something that could have an impact on economic development, Holman said, since industry typically doesn’t locate in a nonattainment area.
“Industry sources have put on state-of-the-art controls,” Holman said. “The question becomes, where do we go for additional controls?”
The new standards on vehicle emissions will continue to help stem air pollution as cars and trucks are upgraded, as will emission controls that will be implemented in other states. Tougher federal regulations on all boilers will also help, she added.
The law requires new industry to use the most stringent level of controls possible, and to require existing industry to offset any new pollution it creates will also lead to improvements down the road, Holman said.
Part of the new focus, said Ashley Featherstone, WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, will be on burning wood. New wood-burning stove guidelines will help, and wood stove users are being encouraged to only burn dry wood and to never burn garbage in their stoves.
Initiatives are also in progress to reduce engine idling, drive less and buy more fuel efficient vehicles.
Jason Walls, the district manager for Duke/Progress, the largest electric
power company in the U.S. with more than $110 billion assets, said the company has reduced smog and haze emissions the 75 percent, cut nitrogen oxice emissions by 77 percent since 2009 the state’s clean smokestacks act was implemented, and reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent.
Though mercury emissions weren’t capped, these have fallen significantly, too, Walls said.
In addition, the company has reduced its fleet fuel consumption by 41 percent, even though the total number of vehicles in use increased.
“We’re generating more energy more cleanly and delivering it more efficiently than ever before,” Walls said.
Eaker covered the alternative fuel initiatives through Land of Sky, including a focus on ethanol, electric charging stations, compressed natural gas, propane and biodiesel.
“The benefits are fuel economy, energy security and fewer emissions,” he said. “We are really starting to make a dent in getting off of foreign oil.”
The agency has secured $13 million in grant funding to implement the programs since 2004, he added.