Counties urged to take steps to prevent EPA violation

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   With so many manufacturing industries leaving Carter County and the surrounding area, one has to wonder how it is that the county has nearly reached non-attainment status with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for exceeding the ozone standard.
   The reason is because air pollution doesn't stop at a geographic boundary, according to Gary Mayes, director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department and chairman of the regional Ozone Action Partnership.
   Carter is one of seven counties which make up the Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA. When EPA looks at ozone exceedances, it looks at exceedances within the regional MSA, not at each particular county. Carter's MSA is made up of Sullivan, Washington, Unicoi, Hawkins, Washington County, Va., and Scott County, Va., Mayes said. "When you talk about air pollution, obviously it's a regional concept," he said.
   Ozone is the main ingredient of smog and can cause a number of respiratory problems. Non-attainment is a term used to classify a region which has violations of EPA's one-hour standard, according to Mayes.
   There are only two ozone monitors in Northeast Tennessee, and both are located in Sullivan County. "One is near a middle school on Bloomingdale Pike, and the other is near an elementary school in Indian Springs community. That's geographically the center of the Tri-Cities," he said.
   "In Sullivan County in the year 2000, we had two exceedances of the one-hour standard two days in a row. If you violate the ozone one-hour standard three times in a three-year period, then you could be classified non-attainment. We've got close with two exceedances," Mayes said. Going over the limit would prompt regulatory action by state and federal agencies.
   "We all want clean air to breathe, yet without realizing it, we help create ozone," Mayes said. The regional Ozone Action Partnership -- involving representatives from industry, government, academia and the medical community -- has been preparing for the 2003 ozone season, which began Thursday and ends Sept. 30.
   When there is no cloud cover, relatively high temperatures, stagnant wind, high pressure, and background pollution moving in from the west and south, ozone conditions are ripe.
   Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides emitted by cars, lawn and garden equipment, power plants and industrial facilities react in sunlight in the Earth's lower atmosphere with volatile organic compounds which are given off by gasoline, paints, solvents -- even plants and trees.
   The Ozone Action Partnership is hoping to make the public more aware of things they can do to help minimize air pollution, not only to reduce health risks on a personal level, but to help prepare for new, more stringent regulations forthcoming from EPA which will affect the seven-county area.
   "The one-hour standard is going to be an eight-hour standard probably within the next couple of years; therefore, that bar will lower significantly. If we compare ourselves to a pending new regulation, we probably will be classified as non-attainment," Mayes said.
   "What we are trying to do as a partnership is work with local governments, the counties and the cities, and be proactive: Try and keep attainment standards but at the same time lower our air pollution and make our air cleaner."
   The partnership will meet next week at the First Tennessee Development District office in Johnson City to discuss measures Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia can implement to head off Clean Air issues that will result from the new EPA standards, Mayes said.
   "Our plan is to use science, engineering and proven techniques that other parts of the country have used and look at how they will fit our community and culture. Hopefully by the year 2007 we'll have a good plan in place," he said.
   The partnership will make ozone forecasts available daily by 4 p.m. to industry and transportation officials as well as the media. The group is hopeful the forecasts, which are a day in advance, will be used by the media in daily weather packages. Then on an ozone action day, "if you're an asthma patient, you'll be more aware and maybe you shouldn't go out and do extensive exercising or activities," Mayes said.
   When the ozone level is high, the partnership suggests individuals:
   * Reduce unnecessary engine idling, such as waiting at a drive-thru window.
   * Postpone mowing until evening or the next day;
   * Limit daytime driving or carpool instead;
   * Conserve electricity; and,
   * Drive the newest and most efficient vehicle. (Emissions from one poorly maintained vehicle equals that of 25 which function properly.)
   Area employers have been asked to come up with their own ozone action plans. The partnership has suggested businesses consider postponement of paving or lawn maintenance on ozone action days; reducing the idling of 18-wheelers or other large vehicles; encouraging employees to eat in; rearranging work schedules to help reduce traffic; and using alternatives such as telecommunication.
   "We're trying to protect the health of our citizens as well as the health of our economy," Mayes said. "One way to do that is for everyone to chip in and do their part. It just takes a little bit of change by a lot of people to make a big difference."