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Summer's Coming -- Get Out The Oxygen!

Breathing that nasty yellow haze is dangerous -- so what's being done about it?


If you've lived through a Charlotte summer in the past few years, we don't have to tell you how bad the air gets: hazy, thick, yellow, just plain nasty. Not to mention really unhealthy. It's gotten so bad, and so little apparent progress has been made toward fixing the problem, people tend to turn the other way and not want to think about it.

You know there's a problem when folks begin to tire of the sheer volume of bad news concerning our environment. It's true -- it seems that almost every month a new report is released alerting us to the dangers of the air we breathe or the water we drink. But even if you're feeling inundated by environmental bad news, if there's ever a time to take heed of studies concerning air quality, it's during the months between May and October, also known as "smog season."

When the hot summer sun combines with all the noxious compounds being pumped from cars, factories and power plants, it worsens the already unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, or smog. Suddenly, Grandpa working in the garden, Junior playing Little League baseball, or essentially anyone with respiratory problems doing anything outside -- or, on some days, everyone spending a lot of time outside -- are placing their health at risk.

Let's take a hard look at North Carolina's air quality. Are things getting any better, or should we all buy gas masks this summer instead of shades and sun tan lotion?

Autos and Smokestacks and Cancer, Oh My

There are, as we said, countless studies that discuss this issue. Some of the more recent ones come from the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group (NCPIRG). Earlier this month, the group released Children at Risk, a study which indicated that over 1.1 million children live within a 30-mile radius of North Carolina's 14 notoriously dirty coal-fired power plants. Of these children, nearly 75,000 suffer from asthma. In another recent study, PIRG noted that NC produced the nation's sixth-largest increase in power plant pollutants between 1995 and 2000. And this comes on the heels of a March report by the Journal of the American Medical Association which stated that long-term exposure to air pollution " like soot generated from power plants and car exhaust -- greatly increases the risk of lung cancer fatalities. There are countless other studies we could cite that discuss things like our state's increased asthma attacks, the increased number of deaths attributed to power plant pollution, the increased number of unhealthy summer days, and Charlotte's alarmingly high ranking among the nation's dirtiest cities. But you get the idea " breathing in North Carolina, particular in summertime when the living should be easy, may be dangerous to your health.

The two biggest culprits in our state's air-pollution problems are " no big surprise here " automobile exhaust and power plant emissions, both of which are doing heinous things to the air we breathe. While there is some debate as to which one poses the biggest threat, most seem to agree it's North Carolina's 14 coal-fired power plants. (Duke Energy and Carolina Power and Light both own seven). State analysts say these plants produce over 40 percent of the ozone-forming nitrogen oxides in Charlotte, and about 70 percent of the state's sulfur dioxide, a source of haze, fine particulate matter and acid rain.

The EPA has deemed this problem so severe that they filed charges against Duke Power in 2000, citing over 50 violations of the Clean Air Act. The EPA's lawsuit claims that Duke failed to install modern pollution control devices " as stipulated by the Clean Air Act -- when they "embarked on a program of modifications." Duke Power is fighting the lawsuit, saying the EPA reinterpreted the language in the Clean Air Act, and that they acted within state and federal regulations, although they don't deny that their older plants create more pollution. The case is still tied up in the courts.

The biggest measure currently addressing North Carolina's air quality woes is the Clean Smokestacks Act. This proposed legislation calls for NC power plants to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions from its coal-fired power plants by about 70 percent over the next decade. These emission reductions are in addition to the state's Environment Management Commission (EMC) regulations adopted last year, which require about a two-thirds reduction in the nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and other industries by 2006. Unlike the EMC regulations, which apply only during the summer months, the Clean Smokestacks Act would require reductions year round. Utilities are expected to make these emission reductions by installing giant structures called scrubbers, which will strip much of the ozone-forming gases from the plant's exhaust. Duke is already in the process of installing these structures at some of their plants, including their Cliffside location, west of Charlotte in Rutherford County.

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