ET air, skies cleaner

Senator: Citizens' health, Smokies vistas still need work

Posted on March 30, 2006

East Tennessee's air is getting cleaner faster than expected, but more needs to be done to protect the health of area citizens and improve vistas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Monday. Revised air pollution forecasts predict Knox County will comply with federal limits for fine particle pollution by 2015, an improvement over previous projections. Alexander, a Republican who chairs the Senate's Energy Subcommittee, met with the region's mayors at the Howard H. Baker Jr. U.S. Courthouse. He lauded the mayors' commitment, noting that they have gathered monthly for more than two years to address air-quality issues. "Clean air is important for our health, for our jobs, for our views of the Smokies," he said. "Ten million people a year don't come down here to see smog." Knox and Hamilton counties aren't in compliance with federal limits for fine particle pollution, which includes soot and other tiny airborne particles. Previous projects had indicated that Knox County wouldn't meet the federal standards until sometime after 2018. Fine particles - smaller than 1/30 the diameter of a human hair - can lodge deep in the lungs and cause or aggravate a variety of breathing problems. Burning fossil fuels is the primary human cause of fine particles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tougher fine particle standards, but John Bachman, science policy director at the EPA's Office of Air Quality and Standards, said the region should be able to meet those, too. Bachman said Knox County's new numbers could be traced to a single monitoring station at the old Rule High School in North Knoxville. He said upgrades at the nearby Gerdau Ameristeel plant led to lower readings at the station. "What we've seen is likely the result of those controls," Bachman said. Alexander credited the Tennessee Valley Authority with making strides in reducing nitrogen oxide emissions at its power plants, though he added he would like to see the utility install controls for sulfur dioxide at all its coal-fired power plants. TVA president and chief operating officer Tom Kilgore, who attended the meeting, said the utility would be installing sulfur scrubbers at its Bull Run and Kingston steam plants this year as part of its $6 billion pollution control program. TVA's current plans call for the installation of scrubbers at 18 of 59 boilers in its 11 fossil plants by 2010. Other industries are reducing emissions, too, officials said. Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale said Sea Ray Boats has made "dramatic reductions" in emissions at its manufacturing plants. Besides Knox and Hamilton, four other counties - Blount, Loudon, Anderson and part of Roane - have been added to the EPA's list of nonattainment counties because their emissions contribute to air quality problems elsewhere. Local governments have restricted outdoor burning and have asked state officials to lower speed limits for trucks in counties that don't meet air quality standards. Alexander said local actions can have a big impact on air quality, but more work needs to be done. "We've still got a ways to go," he said. "The visibility in the Smokies isn't where it needs to be." Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association agreed, saying complying with federal limits isn't the same as having clean air. "If you just barely get into attainment, you're really playing Russian roulette with your economy," he said. Last week, a federal court cut down a Bush administration proposal that would allow power plants and other industries to upgrade their facilities without installing state-of-the-art emissions controls. Only Congress, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said in a unanimous decision, could revise the Clean Air Act in that manner. Bachman said the EPA is reviewing the decision, but added that the ruling wouldn't have an effect on emissions projections.