In addition to causing health problems, air pollution in WNC impairs the mountain views that help draw millions of tourists to the area.
As spring weather returns to Asheville, so does the risk of dangerous levels of ozone pollution. To raise awareness and help notify the public when ozone levels become hazardous, environmental agencies will start issuing daily air quality forecasts Tuesday, April 1, for Asheville and other metropolitan areas across the state.
“It helps people impacted by ozone plan their day,” said Director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality Sheila Holman, who was in Asheville March 27 for an “Ozone Season Kickoff” event. Ozone, a highly reactive form of oxygen, can be unhealthy to breathe — particularly for children, people with respiratory problems or heart disease, and even healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors, according to the agency. Over time, exposure to high ozone levels can cause the development of asthma. It also causes millions of dollars in tree and crop damage, and it impacts the mountain views that draw millions of tourists to Western North Carolina every year.
Ozone is North Carolina’s most widespread air quality problem, particularly during the warmer months. High ozone levels generally occur on hot sunny days with little wind, when pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons react in the air, according to the N.C. Division of Air Quality.
Ozone levels in Asheville have been declining since 2000. Last year was “the best ozone season on record,” with no days that reached levels the state agency considers “unhealthy,” said Holman. A major factor in keeping the pollution levels down was the unusually cool and rainy weather, she said.
The 2002 Clean Smokestacks state law required coal burning power plants to reduce emissions. That, as well as rising fuel standards have played major roles in bringing ozone levels down over the last decade, Holman said.
Duke Energy’s local coal-fired power plant has reduced its emissions of nitrogen oxide 77 percent since 2002, said Jason Walls, district manager.
The Clean Smokestacks law, which was championed by recently deceased Buncombe County Sen. Martin Nesbitt, resulted in Duke investing in “a multi-billion dollar modernization campaign,” Walls said at the ozone season kickoff event. “Our company has made tremendous strides, all while keeping costs below the national average to costumers.”
However, Bill Eaker, senior environmental planner at the Land of Sky Regional Council, says that despite the progress, it’s no time for clean-air advocates to start resting on their laurels.
Next year, the Environmental Projection Agency is likely to reduce the level of ozone it considers hazardous to human health. And in the years ahead, development could cause levels to rise, said Eaker.
“Our region is continuing to grow and with this growth will come more cars and trucks on our roads, more homes and buildings to heat and cool, not to mention all the lawnmowers and weed eaters and blowers we use on a weekly basis,” he explained. “So to keep up with this growth, we must continue to take action to reduce our energy consumption, find cleaner sources of power, and reduce emissions for our vehicles and equipment.”
View the N.C. Division of Air Quality’s daily ozone forecasts here.