Industrial pollution in air falls in county
Published: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 1:17 a.m.
While mercury and ammonia levels jumped slightly, total air emissions released by Alachua County's largest industrial polluters decreased between 2001 and 2002, new federal pollution data show.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory, which provides a detailed county-by-county breakdown of polluters and the chemicals they produce, 75,000 fewer pounds of airborne toxins were emitted during the 12-month period.
In all, roughly 1.98 million pounds of waste escaped into the county's air in 2002, the data show. Statewide, more than 81 million pounds of chemicals were released, roughly 3 million fewer than the previous year.
"From our point of view, things are getting better," said John Glunn, an environmental manager with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's air division in Tallahassee. "We've still got a long way to go, but things are getting better."
The Alachua County drop is largely the result of reduced hydrochloric acid emissions, down 97,000 pounds to approximately 1.63 million pounds. Sulfuric acid emissions also declined, to roughly 85,000 pounds, from 99,000 pounds.
Those pollutants, which have been linked to a number of health problems - from skin irritation to lung disease - are byproducts of coal, oil and gas combustion.
The lion's share of the county's industrial air releases, including hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, can be traced to Gainesville Regional Utilities' Deerhaven Generating Station on U.S. 441 between Gainesville and Alachua; the facility is by far the region's largest stationary source of pollution.
Vehicle emissions, a major contributor to the county's overall air quality, were not recorded in the EPA analysis. To search the annual inventory, visit www.epa.gov/tri.
Robert Klemans, a Gainesville Regional Utilities' engineer who compiles the utility's Toxic Release Inventory data, said reductions measured by the EPA were the result of a drop in fuel use.
Simply put, the Deerhaven facility burned less coal, and produced less power, in 2002 than in 2001, Klemans said.
"We had a reduction in the combustion of coal. That's probably the biggest thing" contributing to the drop in emissions.
Some have concerns
It is unclear why GRU burned less coal, and in turn, generated less power. But a review of the resulting pollution releases illustrates one of the many problems that can arise when comparing annual inventory data, air quality experts said.
For one, air emission totals are dependant on the number of facilities operating in a given region, and at what scale they are producing. If fewer sources operate at a reduced scale, the thinking goes, pollution will decline.
Another potential problem is the way the data is collected. Because EPA relies on companies to submit their own data, the potential for underreporting is high, some have suggested. A report released last week by the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental advocacy group, claimed that emission totals in the Toxic Release Inventory were "four to five times" lower than is accurate.
An EPA official told reporters in a conference call those claims were baseless.
Other difficulties in air emission trend analysis result from changes in EPA-mandated reporting requirements; shifts in individual production processes; or environmental upgrades to industrial facilities.
"It's a broad tool," Glunn of the DEP said of the federal agency's yearly inventory. "What it is good for is trends. It sort of raises flags when you see the trends change.
"But it's not a surgical kind of tool."
Despite the overall emission decreases, and various reporting problems, some pollutants emitted by Alachua County operators clearly rose during the previous reporting period.
Mercury, ammonia up
Mercury, a byproduct of coal combustion, spiked by 34 pounds in 2002, to 231 pounds. The airborne chemical also jumped statewide by 223 pounds, ending 2003 at 2,761 pounds.
Airborne mercury emitted by coal-burning facilities can be absorbed by fish when it settles in nearby waterways, and lead to health problems in humans who consume large amounts seafood.
Deerhaven and Florida Rock's Thompson S. Baker cement plant in Newberry were the only facilities that contributed to the county's increase.
Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, said the climb in mercury levels was troubling.
"Nationwide, it seems that the one area the federal government has failed to address are power plants," Bird said speaking specifically of coal-fired facilities. "They've tightened up on mercury emissions from garbage and other sources. But the burning of coal has not been very well regulated."
Klemans said GRU's mercury increase, like the increase in other constituents, was related to the type and amount of coal burned in 2002.
The county's only other significant air increase was in the release of ammonia, a chemical the EPA tracks because it forms particulate matter in the atmosphere when mixed with other chemicals. Ammonia went up 2,515 pounds from 2001 to 2002.
Breathing particulates can increase the risks of heart and lung disease, and the EPA says reducing fine particulates "is the single most important action we can take to make our air healthier for Americans."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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