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Air quality:?Better or worse than in the past?

February 23, 2012
Times Leader
By MIKE PALMER, Times Leader Staff Writer

The American Lung Association (ALA) has released their annual report, State of the Air 2011, highlighting which cities have the worst air for ozone pollution, short-term particle pollution, and year-long particle pollution. All of these pollutants present problems for the health of the people living near these regions (and sometimes, not near these regions). Locally Pittsburgh was ranked at number 7 in the SOTA 2011’s list of “10 Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution.” According to the report, over 18.5 million people in the U.S. live in a region with unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution. Air pollution, along with other pollution, has historically followed industrial growth. In the late nineteenth century, air pollution was a serious local problem arising in many industrial settings in the United States. The ALA recently reported that particle pollution from power plants kills approximately 13,000 people per year. Pollution hazards may be exacerbated for people who are part of an “at-risk” group, such as those with asthma, chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. The ALA has also found that people who live in poverty may face higher risk from air pollution. The ALA reported that before legislation had been adopted to specifically address air pollution, the courts utilized common law causes of action such as “public nuisance” to resolve claims of damage to human health and the environment. The 1907 U.S. Supreme Court decision Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. was just such a case, coincidentally that was the American Lung Association launched their Christmas Seals Campaign. It was the beginning of a 100 year fight for cleaner air in America. Despite their efforts to combat air pollution by industry, the first direct regulation of air pollution was not adopted until 1965, with the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, followed by the Air Quality Act of 1967. But it was the Clean Air Act of 1970 that finally changed the priorities, emphasis and approach of federal air pollution regulation. The main villain in the particle air pollution has been the coal industry and the coal burning power plants. The new legislation and cap and trade proposals are touting natural gas as an alternative fossil fuel and are pushing power companies to replace the dirty coal plants with natural gas fueled plants. Local residents all agree that the hoods of their cars on a morning with some dew provide ample evidence that the air quality in our valley has improved. The replacement of coal fired home heating units has also helped reduce the smog in the Ohio River Valley over the past 50 years. Because of our local economy’s dependence on the coal industry and the jobs provided by the local coal burning power plants, local politicians are hoping a compromise can be reached. Also, with the promise of a bright future for the local area now linked to our vast reserves of natural gas in the local communities, there is also a concern by the EPA that the new industry could be less of a clean resource than first indicaatsed. One of the main advantages of natural gas is that it is supposed to be far cleaner than oil or coal. Right now Congress is even considering a T. Boone Pickens-inspired bill aimed at converting the nation’s truck fleet to run on natural gas. If it’s passed, it will be in large part on the assumption that such a move will help the nation reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases. But evidence continues to mount that natural gas is not as clean as we like to think. In January, a ProPublica investigation found that large amounts of “fugitive” emissions were left out of common comparisons between coal and gas and that if these emissions were counted the advantages of natural gas dwindled. Our report found that the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions estimates from hydraulic fracturing in shale formations were 9,000 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. We also quoted Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor, saying that he would soon release research that showed that the emissions from gas were even worse. Massive stores of natural gas that lie underneath big portions of the United States offer a cleaner source of electricity to a country that relies heavily on coal, but producing all that gas also can pump lots of pollution into the air. Gas production already has caused unhealthy air in Wyoming’s Sublette County and Utah’s Uintah Basin. And experts project that booming shale gas developments like Haynesville, stretching through Texas and Louisiana, and Marcellus, which lies beneath several Mid-Atlantic states, will start contributing to unhealthy levels of ozone or smog in coming years. “This isn’t just next to where the development is actually happening, the poor person living downwind of the compressor, this is ozone levels in Philadelphia and [Washington] D.C. and New York City and places like that,” says Carnegie Mellon University professor Allen Robinson. Howarth’s findings are based in part on the EPA’s revelation that far more gas escapes into the atmosphere in production fields than was previously known, and on a mathematical tweaking of the intensity of methane gas’ effect on the atmosphere. Howarth, whose figures for total emissions exceed even the EPA’s revised estimates, calculates the impact of methane in the atmosphere over a 20-year period, saying the urgent need to address short-term climate change justifies that calculation. Over 20 years, methane is considered 72 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in its effects on climate change. Using that approach, Howarth concludes that gas may be between 20 and 100 percent dirtier than coal. Industry officials argue that the benefits of natural gas for air quality far outweigh any negatives, but experts caution that much cleaner production practices are needed to prevent the industry from becoming an air quality villain. The battle has raged in courts and congress for over a century and arrayed forces of the emboldenedenvironmentalists are still on the attack with Clean Air legislation. With the local economy reliant on the industry we must continue to balance the two sides in the conflict as we seek a compromise between the environmentalists and the industrialists. The American Lung Associations State of the Air 2011 foundthe Clean Air Act is working. All metro areas in the list of the 25 cities mostpolluted by ozone showed improvement over the previous report, and 15 ofthose cities experienced the best year yet. All but two of the 25 cities mostpolluted with year-round particle pollution improved over last year’s report. However, only 11 cities among those most polluted by short-term spikes inparticle pollution experienced improvement. 10 Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution 1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif. 2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif. 3. Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Ariz. 4. Visalia-Porterville, Calif. 5. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif. 6. Fresno-Madera, Calif. 7. Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa. 8. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, Ala. 9. Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, Ohio-Ky.-Ind. 10. Louisville-Jefferson County-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, Ky.-Ind. Data Provided by: American Lung Association Annual State of the Air Report The State of the Air 2011 report grades cities and counties based, in part, on the color-coded Air Quality Index developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)to help alert the public to daily unhealthy air conditions. The 12th annualrelease of the Lung Association’s report uses the most recent EPA datacollected from 2007 through 2009 from official monitors for ozone andparticle pollution, the two most widespread types of air pollution. Countiesare graded for ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particlepollution levels. The report also uses EPA’s calculations for year-roundparticle levels. The report identified Honolulu, Hawaii and Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M. as the cleanest cities—the only two cities in the nation thatwere among the cleanest for year-round particle pollution and also had nodays when ozone and daily particle pollution levels reached unhealthy.

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