Will Asheville flunk the ozone test?

Now that the Environmental Protection Agency has issued stricter standards for ozone pollution, air quality in the Asheville metropolitan area may no longer be up to snuff. A map released by the Southern Environmental Law Center on March 12 details which North Carolina metropolitan areas would be considered in “nonattainment” — or in violation of the new standard — based on recent air-sampling data. Asheville joined a long list, including Hickory, Winston-Salem / Greensboro, Rocky Mount, Greenville and Elizabeth City. Among the worst air-quality areas in the state were the Charlotte/Gastonia/Concord area and Raleigh/Durham.

The rule change, which was based on a public-health assessment, restricted the concentration of ozone-forming compounds from .08 parts per million per eight hours to .075 parts per million per eight hours. “The [federal] Clean Air Act says that the standard must be based on public health, and public health alone,” notes SELC Senior Attorney David Farren. “Every five years, they revisit the current standard, and look at the latest public health data and make a determination as to whether the standard should be strengthened or left alone.”

But Farren maintains that the new standard, while more stringent, isn’t tough enough to truly protect public health.

“An official advisory committee recommended that the standard be .070 rather than .075. .070 is a stronger standard and more protective of public health. In fact, the scientific advisory committee said that the standard should be somewhere between .060 and .070, but instead there was a political compromise, lots of pressure from industry not to change the standard at all, and they split the baby with the standard of .075, which is not protective of public health. Even that relatively lax standard shows most North Carolinians are breathing unhealthy air, including in the Asheville area.”

But whether or not the Asheville metropolitan area would actually be designated as being in nonattainment remains to be seen. The new standard was passed last week, and the state has a year to decide which metropolitan areas should be placed on the nonattainment list. The EPA then has a year to determine which areas will be on the final list, and the designations will ultimately be made in 2010.

“If the air gets appreciably cleaner in an area that’s right on the edge, it’s possible that some area that’s projected on our map may not actually get designated,” notes Farren.

— Rebecca Bowe, contributing editor

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