U.S. Suffered Record Levels of Smog in 2002
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, August 27, 2003 (ENS) - 2002 was the worst smog season in recent years, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). Smog monitors in 41 states and the District of Columbia recorded unhealthy levels of air pollution on some 8,800 occasions in 2002, a 90 percent increase over the number of violations of the national health standard for smog in 2001.
PIRG's report includes some data on 2003 and finds that wet, mild weather this summer has reduced smog levels in many parts of the United States, but the environmental group warns that the nation must be more aggressive in its efforts to reduce smog levels.
"We can not change weather or geography, but we can control the amount of pollution in the air," says the report's author Emily Figdor, a clean air advocate with PIRG.
Ground level ozone - known as smog - is formed near the ground by the action of sunlight on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). These pollutants are released via emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, industrial facilities and chemical solvents.
Smog is typically worse in the summer, as heat, sunlight and less wind cause levels to rise.
California, Texas, and Tennessee led the nation in 2002 with the most smog days, which PIRG defines as days on which at least one ozone monitor in the state exceeds the national health standard.
On 55 occasions in 2002, monitors in California, Texas and along the Eastern seaboard recorded levels of smog within the "very unhealthy range."
The report, entitled "Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Levels of Smog in 2002" is PIRG's fourth annual compilation of data from the nation's network of more than 1,000 ozone monitors.
Smog creates serious public health concerns and there is increasing scientific evidence linking air pollution to asthma, heart disease and certain cancers.
Children, the elderly and individuals with chronic lung disease, such as asthma, are at greatest risk of breathing problems from exposure to smog.
Nearly one half of all Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of smog and there is ample evidence the nation's wild and rural places are being seriously affected by smog.
In 2002, 16 monitors at 11 national parks, including the Great Smokey Mountains and Yosemite National Parks, recorded levels of ozone in excess of the national health standard 418 times.
The key to reducing smog is targeting the sources of NOx and VOCs. Cars and trucks are a major source of both - responsible for 29 percent of VOCs and some 33 percent of NOx emissions. Tailpipe emission technologies have reduced harmful automotive emissions by some 90 percent since 1970, but increases in drivers and miles driven have largely offset these benefits.
Many believe that controlling pollution emissions from power plants and industrial sources may offer the best way to reduce smog. Power plants and industrial facilities contribute 23 percent of the nation's emissions of NOx and 44 percent of all emissions of VOCs.
But environmentalists say the nation - led by the Bush administration - is poised to ease pollution controls on power plants and other industrial polluters, despite the increasing concerns about smog levels.
"The Bush administration's plan to weaken the Clean Air Act is like pouring gasoline on a fire - it will make a bad situation much worse," Figdor said.
PIRG says the Bush administration is trying to relax pollution controls for the nation's dirtiest and largest industrial facilities on two fronts - through administrative rule changes to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program and through legislation that aims to replace the Clean Air Act with a new air pollution control plan known as "Clear Skies."
Critics of these policies say Clear Skies and the changes to New Source Review will allow more air pollution for longer and will add to the smog problem that plagues much of the nation.
Clear Skies, for example, would allow 1.7 million tons of NOx emissions by 2018 whereas the existing Clean Air Act cut NOx emissions to two million tons by 2012.
About 44 percent of VOCs come from power plants and industrial facilities, but critics of the administration say its revisions to New Source Review will further delay reduction of these harmful pollutants.
In a final New Source Review rule expected to be announced Wednesday, the Bush administration will relax the obligation of these sources of air pollution to upgrade pollution controls when they revamp their plants and facilities.
The administration says its changes will give industry much needed regulatory predictability that will ultimately produce more efficiency and less pollution than the existing law, but environmentalists strongly disagree.
PIRG's report also calls on the administration to finalize its proposed rule to reduce pollution from nonroad diesel engines, which contribute 22 percent of the national emissions of NOx and 18 percent of VOCs.
And PIRG says the administration needs to aggressively implement the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) new ozone standard.
The EPA set tighter limits for ozone in 1997, but legal wrangling has prevented them from taking effect. After environmentalists threatened further legal action, the EPA agreed to designate areas that do not comply with the new standards no later than April 2004. That designation, however, is only the trigger for implementation and there is considerable debate over those proposed guidelines.
"We can not depend on the weather to protect Americans from diseases caused by breathing polluted air," said Clear the Air Director Angela Ledford. "We may have gotten lucky this summer because of the break from the summer heat, but smog levels are still unacceptably high and will rise again unless we clean up old, dirty power plants and other pollution sources."
And the preliminary data in PIRG's report for 2003 is not all good - Colorado is having its worst smog season in recent years, and Florida and Louisiana already have exceeded the national health standard for ozone more frequently than in all of 2002.