RALEIGH - Air quality improvements in North Carolina over the past decade are borne out in the latest "non-attainment" designations for ozone that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday.
The new EPA designations for areas not meeting the federal air quality standard for ozone included only the Charlotte metropolitan area, down from seven regions across the state that exceeded the standard in the early 2000s. The Charlotte non-attainment area includes all of Mecklenburg and parts of Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Rowan and Union counties. (See map http://www.ncair.org/planning/ozone/o3boundary/Final_Nonattainment_Area.png)
“We still have some work to do in the Charlotte area, but we believe that programs underway will help bring that area into compliance with the ozone standard soon,” said Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality. “Ozone levels have steadily declined across the state over the past decade due to stricter standards that resulted in lower emissions from power plants, other industry and motor vehicles.”
Ozone is North Carolina's most widespread air quality problem, particularly during the warmer months. A highly reactive form of oxygen, ozone can be unhealthy to breathe – particularly for children, people with respiratory problems or heart disease, and even healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors. Ozone also can damage trees and crops.
Ten years ago, more than 30 counties across the state faced nonattainment designations by the EPA for ozone – including the Charlotte, Fayetteville, Hickory, Rocky Mount, Triad and Triangle metro areas as well as high-altitudes in the Great Smokies and Blue Ridge mountains. At that time, more than half of the state’s residents lived in counties that periodically exceeded the ozone standard.
Nonattainment designations can have important implications for public health and air pollution control as well as industrial growth, development and highways. States and local governments need to develop plans for improving air quality in non-attainment areas and can face additional restrictions and federal review for highway projects. New industries wishing to locate in non-attainment areas or existing industries planning to expand often need to add more expensive control equipment, which can hamper industrial growth.
North Carolina responded to those threats through a series of measures aimed at reducing ozone-forming emissions. In 2002, the General Assembly enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act, which required the state’s 14 coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions by three-fourths over the following decade. The legislature also expanded the state’s emissions testing program for cars and trucks from nine to 48 counties, and the EPA adopted more stringent controls for industrial plants, motor vehicle engines and fuels.
The DAQ and local air programs also worked with EPA to develop an air quality forecasting system to help citizens better protect their health and to comply with clean air standards. Air quality forecasts focus on the pollutant likely to reach the highest level on a given day, which could be ozone or particle pollution. The color-coded forecasts show whether air quality is likely to be good (green), moderate (yellow), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), or unhealthy (red). On Code Orange and Red days, the forecasts also suggest things people can do to protect their health and reduce air pollution.
The Charlotte area’s success in complying with the ozone standard will be due in part to individual actions as well as new technological controls on industry and cleaner vehicles being purchased.
“I urge all citizens to help us reduce air pollution through simple actions such driving less, taking their lunch to work or school and adjusting the thermostats in their houses,” Holman said. “This is particularly important on days when air quality is Code Orange or worse.”
State and local air quality programs issue air quality forecasts for ozone from April through October in the Asheville, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Hickory, Triad, Triangle and Rocky Mount metropolitan areas. Forecasts are issued for particle pollution year-round for all of the metro areas except Rocky Mount.
DAQ Meteorologists issue the air quality forecasts at 3 p.m. every day for the following day. In the Triad, forecasts are issued by the Forsyth County Environmental Affairs Department. Citizens can obtain air quality information and forecasts by visiting the DAQ’s website at www.ncair.org.