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Rev 'Em Up!

Like It or Not, Cleaner Air's Coming

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Want to help Charlotte clear its smoggy air? Buy a brand new SUV. Or a brand new Geo Metro. Then drive it as much as you want. Yes, you read that correctly. Unless you're a gadget-head or an automotive junkie, you probably don't know much about one of the most under-reported stories of the year, a story with huge implications for Charlotte's air, which at the moment is among the worst in the nation. And the best part is that the news is good.

Tough new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that apply to all 2004 auto models require emissions reductions of 70 percent for hydrocarbons and 80 percent for nitrogen oxide (Nox), which causes the ozone formation that is behind the bulk of Charlotte's air quality problems. Under the new EPA standards, for the first time, Chevy Suburbans must meet the same emissions requirements as Metros.

That will have a huge impact in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where SUVs, light trucks and heavy pickups will make up about half of our vehicle fleet in the future, according to a study for the EPA by the Charlotte transportation department.

While cars, which will account for about a third of the vehicle miles traveled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, currently take the bulk of the heat from public officials for polluting our air, the reality is that the diesel trucks that pass through our borders on I-85 and I-77 do a lot more damage to our air and will continue to do so. Though they account for only a fraction of the vehicle miles traveled here, they'll continue to contribute close to a third of the Nox in our atmosphere, compared to only about 14 percent for cars.

In the past, having two interstates running through the county, while convenient for commuters, meant paying a heavy price in pollution because of the long haul trucks they attracted. But that will soon begin changing as well. New EPA regulations implemented this year, and even tougher ones for soot and Nox that will take effect in 2007, will reduce current diesel truck emissions by 90 percent per mile.

Of course, the drastic pollution reductions from all three sources will take 20 years to fully achieve, though the bulk of the reduction will take place in the next 10 to 12 years as vehicle owners swap pre-2004 models for newer ones. This is in addition to EPA regulations that take effect this year that require a 60 percent reduction in warm-season Nox emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers and a 20 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide. While environmentalists would be happier if the new power plant emissions standards were tougher, for Charlotte, which has suffered the hard-to-measure effects of pollution drifting in from plants in surrounding counties and states, every little bit will help.

Better yet, if history is an indicator, the federal government will tighten emissions standards on vehicles at least once more before the two decades run out. That means that in all likelihood, 20 years from now our county will have twice as many people and air that's cleaner than it is today.

Of course, that doesn't mean we'll be rid of air pollution or that we can just ignore the problem. But it does mean that basing our transportation and growth planning at least partially upon an assumption of continually decreasing air quality, as we're doing now, is unrealistic because it fails to take regulation and innovation into account.

Because weather can impact the formation of smog by as much as 50 percent from one year to the next, it's easy to forget that overall, ozone and smog formation, while still a persistent problem, is declining. According to the EPA's AIRData website, in 1983, cities with the worst smog in the nation exceeded the federal government's one-hour benchmark for ozone an average of 150 days a year, a number that is unheard of today. The nation's smoggiest cities exceeded the ozone standard an average of 60 days in 1999, 20 in 2000 and 35 in 2001, with the fluctuations of the last several years having more to do with the weather than with rising or declining automobile pollution.

Because local officials aren't talking about, much less studying, this trend, and may not even be aware of it, what impact air quality improvements will have on our future has been left completely out of the political debate over how we should grow and how we should pay for it.

But one thing is certain. Despite all the gloom and doom from politicians, in the future, the air over Charlotte will be cleaner, and there's little we can do to stop it. Not a bad problem to have.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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