How clean is Asheville’s air? NC Division of Air Quality reports

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ASHEVILLE — If the Western North Carolina mountains seem to be a little more in focus, it’s not a mirage.

Since the mid-to-late-90s, when Asheville’s air quality was in violation of federal health standards for ozone pollution, the air has become exponentially cleaner and crisper, according to air quality experts at the annual State of Our Air Briefing Monday hosted by the Land of Sky Regional Council, the N.C. Division of Air Quality and the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency.

“But we can’t become complacent. There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Bill Eaker, Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition coordinator.

“Our metro area is growing somewhat rapidly. All this growth, all these folks coming in, there are more cars and trucks on the road, more homes to heat and cool, more lawn mowers … we have to keep working at reducing emissions, do what is reasonable and cost effective and make sure we stay in compliance.”

Mike Abraczinakas, N.C. Division of Air Quality director, said the states’ air quality has been following a long-term trend of improvement, so much so that all areas of the state are either in compliance with or below Environmental Protection Agency national ambient air quality standards.

The annual air quality briefing even changed its name this year. It used to be called the “Ozone Season Kickoff,” to coincide with the daily, color-coded forecasts for ozone and particulate pollution in March as the warmer temperatures increase the likelihood of ground ozone and particulate pollution, which are health hazards.

But Abraczinakas said adherence to strict air quality standards, better technology and emission reductions from coal burning power plants and gasoline-powered vehicles and cleaner-burning fuels have made huge strides in cleaning up the air and clearing out the views.

Carbon monoxide levels last year were 86 percent below the allowable federal standard of 9 parts per million, dropping to an all-time low of less than 2 ppm, down from nearly 16 ppm when the Clean Air Act was established in 1970, Abraczinakas said.

Ozone concentration is also now at its lowest, below the stringent 2015 standard of 70 parts per billion, Abraczinakas said.

“It’s amazing that we’re 13 percent below the average statewide,” he said.

Ozone, the main culprit in smog, is created when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted from vehicles, the coal-burning power plants such as the Duke Energy facility in Skyland, and other industrial sources heat up in the sun. Ozone is a lung irritant that causes shortness of breath, irritates the throat and eyes, and aggravates asthma.

According to the N.C. Division of Air Quality, ozone levels have dramatically decreased since 1970. Courtesy of NC Division of Air Quality.

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Since 1990, some 300,000 tons of NOx, which are also greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, have been removed from the air, he said, mostly through the closing and upgrading of coal-burning plants and improved vehicle emissions.

In 1990, 33 percent of NOx emissions came from power plants. Today, they emit 13 percent of NOx, while the source from on-road vehicles is up to 50 percent from 42 percent, an area where there is work to be done, he said.

MORE: NC, Asheville air quality to get a boost from Volkswagen emissions scandal settelement

A Draft State Mitigation Plan released Monday outlining proposals for investing North Carolina’s $92 million share of a national settlement with Volkswagen for its manipulation of emission devices, should further help with vehicle exhaust, Abraczinakas said.

Plans for the funds include upgrading older diesel-burning fleets such as school buses, city transit buses and garbage trucks.

Another health and haze culprit showing great improvement is particulate matter, which is formed by a chemical reaction of sulfur dioxide and NOx from power plants and vehicle exhaust, as well as open burning. In high concentrations they can be deadly in people with heart or lung disease and decreased lung function.

The levels of particulate pollution have also dramatically declined relative to 1970 standard, and even the stricter 2012 standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, he said.

“What do lower fine particles mean, other than benefits to public health? Success looks like this,” he said, displaying a crisp, summer mountain view.

“This is crystal clear. This is basically the norm now during summer, not the exception. When we started this air quality program 20 years ago, this was the exception. Now we have crystal clear days where we can enjoy some of North Carolina’s best natural treasures, where we can see the peak beyond the peak, and the range beyond the range.”

The work has been achieved through federal, state and local partnerships, he said, adding on the success of the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, legislation that dramatically improved North Carolina’s air quality, as well as community programs that encourage carpooling, public transportation and walking and biking to work and school.

Jason Walls, district manager for Duke Energy, said NOx emissions will be further reduced next year. That is when Duke’s Lake Julian plant will be retired after burning coal for electricity production for more than 50 years. Coal will be retired, the plant will be demolished, and a natural gas burning plant will take its place.

Ashley Featherstone, permitting manager for the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, said the daily air quality forecasts will continue, as a way for people to plan their time outdoors, and keep tabs on air quality themselves. Orange and red coded days are a warning to people who are sensitive to air pollution to limit time outdoors.

In 2016, Asheville had two code red days, Nov. 22 and 23, due to the nearby Party Rock fire in Lake Lure. But last year, there were no code red or orange days.

The Land of Sky’s Clean Vehicles Coalition has also worked to reduce noxious emissions through promotion of cars with cleaner burning fuels such as biodiesel, natural gas and propane, and electric vehicles.

Eaker said there are now some 9,000 electric vehicles in North Carolina, up from 1,000 in 2012, which he says are good for the grid, the economy, the environment, and human health.

Between 2009-2017 reports a reduction in 6.6 million gallons of gasoline and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 51,000 tons.

More than 1 million pounds of hazardous and toxic pollutants have been removed from the air in North Carolina since 1993 through stricter air quality standards and improved emissions controls on power plants and motor vehicles. Courtesy of NC Division of Air Quality.

(Photo: Provided)

Even clearer skies are on the horizon. Jason Walls, district manager for Duke Energy, said NOx emissions will be further reduced next year when Duke’s Lake Julian plant will be retired after burning coal for electricity production for more than 50 years. Coal will be retired, the plant will be demolished, and a natural gas burning plant will take its place.

Ashley Featherstone, permitting manager for the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, said the daily air quality forecasts will continue, as a way for people to plan their time outdoors, and keep tabs on air quality themselves. Orange and red coded days are a warning to people who are sensitive to air pollution to limit time outdoors.

In 2016, Asheville had two code red days, Nov. 22 and 23, due to the nearby Party Rock fire in Lake Lure. But last year, there were no code red or orange days.

The Land of Sky’s Clean Vehicles Coalition has also worked to reduce noxious emissions through promotion of cars with cleaner burning fuels such as biodiesel, natural gas and propane, and electric vehicles.

Eaker said there are now some 9,000 electric vehicles in North Carolina, up from 1,000 in 2012, which he says are good for the grid, the economy, the environment, and human health.

Between 2009-2017 cleaner burning cars were responsible for a reduction in 6.6 million gallons of gasoline and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 51,000 tons, he said.

How’s the air quality?

The N.C. Division of Air Quality releases daily forecasts are issued for the valleys and ridge tops in the Asheville area at 3 p.m. daily through Oct. 31. The color-coded index is based on expected levels of ozone and fine particulates.

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