Area air quality improves

Improvement is attributed to good weather


Published: Thursday, May 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2003 at 10:37 p.m.

Air quality in Alachua County has improved more than in any other county in the state, according to a report from the American Lung Association, but the improvement was the result of good weather, not a reduction in air pollution.

Air quality measured by ozone levels in 13 Florida counties improved between 1999 and 2001, with Alachua County air making the state's biggest improvement during the three-year period, the American Lung Association said in its fourth annual "State of the Air Report," released today.

But the lung association report said favorable weather, specifically a break from summer heat, and not improved air quality efforts, was the impetus for declining ozone levels.

Air-pollution cleanup activities, such as efforts to clean aging power plants or measures to reduce local vehicle traffic, played a minimal role in the national decline, the association said.

"Four years into the American Lung Association State of the Air reports, where we've analyzed data since the mid-1990s, we can point to no significant ozone improvements other than a few lucky changes in the weather," said John Kirkwood, president and chief executive officer of the lung association.

"We can't depend on Mother Nature to protect Americans from disease and death caused by breathing human-made smog," Kirkwood said.

The main ingredient in smog, ozone is produced when sunlight and warm temperatures mix with volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, both byproducts of fossil fuel combustion. Vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plants are heavy contributors to the chemicals in the atmosphere.

But as temperatures drop, ozone production declines. If data reveals that summertime temperatures returned to normal in 2002, the short-lived decline in the nation's ozone is expected to surge again in the association's 2004 report.

The report, a comprehensive catalog of ozone levels from counties across the country, measured the number of days per year that county air quality exceeded federal standards. Grades of A through F were assigned based on how often ozone levels climbed above 0.08 parts-per-million during an eight-hour period, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's threshold for maintaining healthy lungs.

A potent respiratory irritant, ozone presents a major health risk to children, the elderly and those with chronic lung disease, especially in heavily urbanized areas, the report said.

In Florida, Alachua County topped the list of counties with improved air, climbing from an "F" the past two years to a "B" in the 2003 report. Escambia County took the state's top honors as worst ozone contributor with 24 days of elevated pollutants, compared to 2 for Alachua County.

The report's data is culled annually from state and federal records during regional ozone "seasons," periods of warm, sunny weather. Ozone season in the southeastern United States typically runs from March to September.

The news comes at an ominous time for the country's air quality monitoring efforts.

Recent proposals to roll back federal air pollution regulations could threaten to weaken the 33-year-old Clean Air Act, the nation's foremost air quality safeguard, the association said. One such change, a shift in the act's "New Source Review" safeguard, would remove mandatory air emission upgrades for aging power plants that make facility improvements, the report said.

"Trying to drastically weaken New Source Review is the tip of the iceberg of policy changes that would weaken the core of the Clean Air Act," Kirkwood said.

But that view has drawn criticism from Bush administration officials, who claim that changes are needed to the current review process to ensure future air emission improvements are made.

"The need for reform is clear and has broad-based support," EPA Administrator Christie T. Whitman said in November, when the proposed rule change was announced. The current rules, she said, "have deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution."

While federal rule changes will continue to throw national air quality into question, however, the news of an improved ozone grade may mean little for local air pollution control efforts, said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.

"The ozone data that has been generated in Alachua County indicated that county air quality with respect to ozone is clearly affected by what's going on in the region," Bird said, and "not just Alachua County."

For example, vehicle exhaust, power plant emissions - even forest fires - from far away counties and states can impact air quality in the Gainesville-area, Bird said.

In fact, much of the region's air pollution woes originate in major urban centers north of Florida, including Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., the air report said.

And even if ozone problems did originate within county limits, EPD officials would have little oversight in curbing its proliferation.

In February, citing a tight budget year, the County Commission cut the county's $200,000 air monitoring program, shifting responsibility to the state. Since then, ozone monitoring has been conducted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.

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