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Pollution control has new rules

May 19, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Six years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sharply tightened air pollution standards.

On Wednesday, the EPA started the next step: new rules to go with the new standards.

"It's going to be a huge improvement," said Janice Nolen, director of national policy for the American Lung Association.

The object is to reduce ground-level ozone pollution, commonly known as smog.

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's primer on ozone says, "Ground-level ozone, a key component of smog, is formed when pollution from vehicles, industry, consumer products and power plants 'bakes' in the hot, summer sun. Unlike the 'ozone layer' in the upper atmosphere, which protects us from the sun's harmful rays, ground-level ozone makes it hard for some people to breathe and can cause long-term lung damage."

"Nearly half the American population - more than 137 million Americans - continues to breathe unhealthy amounts of the toxic air pollutant ozone (smog)," the American Lung Association concluded in its annual report, "State of the Air: 2003."

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Based on the number of "high ozone days," when the ozone level was unhealthy, the report gave out a slew of F's - failing grades - to counties nationwide.

In the Tri-State area, Washington County, Md., and Franklin County, Pa., each got an F.

Berkeley County, W.Va., did not have three years' worth of data, the minimum required for an official grade, but the average ozone level for the last two years slightly exceeds the national standard.

The EPA formerly measured ground-level ozone with a one-hour standard of 125 parts per billion. In 1997, the method was switched to eight-hour readings - once an hour for eight hours each day - and the cutoff switched to 85 parts per billion.

Many counties found they were able to meet the old standard, but not the new standard. A series of court challenges, in particular, delayed the EPA from enforcing the standard.

Without repercussions, Nolen said, the standards meant little.

Washington County's latest three-year average, ending in 2002, was 87 parts per billion. In the three-year period ending in 2001, the level was 85 parts per billion.

Action plans

Washington County is working with state environmental officials on an Early Action Compact plan, said Robert Arch, the county's planning director.

By putting together a preliminary plan by the June 16 deadline, counties can avoid stricter requirements later on.

As an example, Randy Mosier, head of the Maryland Department of Environment's air quality planning program, mentioned road projects, which would become more complicated with air quality standards factored in.

"It's a much more difficult planning process," Mosier said.

Washington County held a public hearing on clean air May 8, but no one from the public attended.

In Berkeley County, the average ozone level for the last two years was 88 parts per billion, based on readings from a monitor set up in Mart-insburg.

Berkeley County Development Authority Executive Director Robert Crawford said a task force considering improvement ideas met April 23 and May 7, when about 25 people attended. The group, made up of representatives from Berkeley and Jefferson counties, also is working on an Early Action Compact plan.

Fred Durham, the environmental resources program manager for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Air Quality, said factories and cars do not emit ozone. Their emissions, when driven in sunlight, turn into ground-level ozone.

Combustion creates nitrogen oxide or NOX. Solvents, such as gasoline or butane, create volatile organic compounds or VOC. If you start a car, you're creating both NOX and VOC.

Ozone problems get worse when it's hot.

Stricter controls

When it comes to ozone and air quality, manufacturing processes are usually the first target for stricter controls.

Durham referred to those processes as "low-hanging fruit," easiest to reach.

A bigger task is getting the public to change its behavior - cutting down on aerosol products, avoiding gas-powered lawn equipment and driving less.

"It's tough to get people out of their cars," Durham said.

That's especially true in areas where large numbers of people commute to work, such as Jefferson County, in which 27.5 percent of the population commuted outside the county in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

More than 55 percent of the counties in the U.S. with monitors received an F for their three-year, ground-level ozone readings in the American Lung Association report.

Maryland has 12 Fs out of 12 counties; Pennsylvania had 26 Fs out of 29 counties and cities; and West Virginia had five Fs out of six counties.

Although Anne Arundel County - ranked in the report as one of the 25 most ozone-polluted counties in the country - had three times as many high-ozone days as Washington County, both received an F.

Durham said the American Lung Association's data appears sound, but the Fs may be excessive.

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