Air quality action mulled

June 11, 2003|by TARA REILLY

The Washington County Commissioners are considering about 60 measures to clean up the county's air to avoid more stringent federal regulations that could result in the delay or elimination of Hagerstown Regional Airport's runway extension project and the widening of Interstate 81, Planning Director Robert Arch said Tuesday.

Arch presented the ground-level ozone pollution controlling strategies to the County Commissioners at Tuesday's meeting.

The strategies are part of the Early Action Compact, a joint effort by county government and the Maryland Department of the Environment to avoid mandatory tougher restrictions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA allows some counties to voluntarily create their own ozone pollution-control steps by 2004 through the reduction of chemical emissions. The commissioners voted to submit the compact to the EPA by Monday.


"It's a lot of paperwork ... but I can't see how you can't go forward," Commissioner James F. Kercheval said.

Ground level ozone, commonly known as smog, is a toxic gas that, when inhaled, can cause respiratory problems, chest pain, sore throats and other breathing problems, according to the EPA. Ozone is formed when hot summer sun mixes with pollution from vehicles, industry, consumer products and power plants.

Washington County's average ozone level is slightly above 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.

The county's 2002 average was 87 parts per billion.

Of the approximately 60 strategies, Arch said the county probably would adopt about six less expensive measures. The strategies include issuing "Red Alerts" through the media on days when ground-level ozone pollution is high.

The alerts might involve asking residents to voluntarily carpool or refrain from mowing their lawns in the afternoon.

Other proposed steps include encouraging the use of public transportation; riding bicycles to cut down on vehicle travel; the creation of ozone awareness programs for the public, employers, school students and community groups; speed limit restrictions on highways and the promotion of lower pollution fuels for off-road mobile equipment, according to a draft of the Early Action Compact.

Arch said that while following an Early Action Compact might exempt the county from mandatory federal restrictions, there's also a chance it will not. He said there's no guarantee the measures would improve the quality of air in the county.

"The EPA could still say we're not meeting requirements if we adopt a compact," Arch said.

If that's the case, the county could eventually have to show that federally-funded transportation-related projects, such as the proposed I-81 widening and the airport's runway extension project, will not result in higher ozone levels through increased traffic, he said.

The I-81 project calls for creating more lanes, and the runway extension project includes renovations to U.S. 11 to accommodate a longer runway.

While the county's air is cleaner than that in some other areas in the state, it sometimes has high ozone levels because of pollution floating in from upwind areas, such as the Ohio River Valley, and the county's proximity to the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area, county and environmental officials have said.

Arch said the county usually has only a few high-level ozone days, which are typically muggy days in August.

He said that while the county can do some things to control ozone pollution, because much of it blows in from other areas, the county probably never will be able to get rid of it altogether.

"The bulk of our air problem is something we basically can't even control," Arch said after Tuesday's meeting. "Some things will have a limited affect."

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