Tri-State air quality is improving, with both particle and ozone pollution levels falling

More stringent federal regulations credited
Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-03 07:00:09-05

CINCINNATI -- In the recent presidential campaign, environmental issues usually took a backseat to questions about emails and the treatment of women. In the debates, for example, only one question was asked about global warming, and that had to do more with the jobs that would be lost by coal miners.

But there's actually some good news on the environmental front, at least locally.

In its "State of the Air" report released earlier this year, the American Lung Association ranked the Tri-State region 14th among metro areas in the United States for year-round particle pollution -- meaning that 13 other metro areas were worse.

That's an improvement over last year's report, when the Tri-State region was ranked eighth, and only seven other metro areas had worse particle pollution.

And this wasn't a case of the Tri-State region moving down because other metro areas got worse. Particle pollution here was objectively lower during 2012-14, the years covered in this year's report. In fact, the readings for 2012-14 were the best ever since monitoring began.

According to the report, 13 other metro areas also had their best years ever for particle pollution over that period, including Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Louisville, on the other hand, did worse in this year's report than last year's.

Particle pollution is made up of soot, or tiny particles that come from power plants, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices, the association's director of advocacy for Ohio, Shelly Kiser said. It's of particular concern to the association, because the particles can lodge deep in the lungs and cause asthma attacks or even strokes.

There's also good news about the second-most significant air pollutant -- ground-level ozone, or smog, which is caused when sunlight reacts with chemicals produced primarily when fossil fuels are burned.

The Tri-State region continued to reduce ozone pollution in 2012-14, this year's report says. Hamilton County had an average of 13.8 days with unhealthful levels of ozone, better than an average of 22 days in 2011-13.

According to local pollution-control agencies, levels of ozone and particulate pollution locally have been decreasing for years.

According to the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency, in Hamilton and surrounding Ohio counties, particle pollution decreased 63 percent from 1990 through 2013, even more than the 35 percent decrease recorded for the nation as a whole.

Over the same period, ozone pollution fell 23 percent from its 1990 level, as did ozone pollution nationally.

The Kentucky Division for Air Quality reports that from 1999 through 2015, the concentration of particles in the air in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties fell by one-third.

Over the same period, the concentration of ozone fell by 22 percent.

Why has air pollution decreased?

Regulators attribute the impact to federal regulations of coal-fired power plants and diesel engines on motor vehicles and boats.

"The expectation was that coal-fired power plants would put in scrubbers that would really cut sulfur dioxide," said Joy Landry, a public relations specialist for the agency. "Improving air quality sure lines up with the changes that went into effect with the coal scrubbers."

Many of these regulations came out of the Clean Air Act of 1990, which tightened pollution standards for emissions from cars and trucks. It also required power plants to decrease their emissions.

"Those are really helping the air," Kiser said. "The regulations are working … It's been a wonderful thing to see that happen."

Regulation of coal-fired power plants is especially significant for the Tri-State region, because we are surrounded by them.

That's due in part because the Ohio River is such a highway for barges carrying coal from the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

Coal has been a cheap source of electricity for that reason. But the fracking boom of recent years has made natural gas even cheaper, which has led to less use of coal to generate electricity.

In 2014, Duke Energy closed down its W.C. Beckjord plant in New Richmond, where more than 5 million tons of coal ash is still buried. Duke said it closed the plant because it couldn't meet tougher pollution rules and was too old and expensive to retrofit.

For the first time this year, car/truck emissions overtook power plants nationally as the No. 1 source of carbon dioxide, a pollutant associated with global warming.

Air pollution's been a problem locally because Cincinnati lies in a valley that traps emissions from power plants and other sources, said Nathan Alley, a New Richmond attorney who works part time for the Sierra Club in Ohio.

He attributes the improvements in ozone and particulate pollution to federal regulations, but he also said simple things like not idling your car can help.

A local initiative that might be making an impact is the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency's anti-idling program. Since 2008, the agency has distributed hundreds of signs advising motorists they're in an idle-free zone, Landry said.

The signs go primarily to schools or day-care centers, she said, because children are the most at risk.

The program's impact is hard to measure, she said, because the agency has no way of knowing whether motorists are actually shutting off their vehicles as they wait in line to pick up their children, for example.

The declines in ozone and particulate pollution mirror the decline in another pollutant that was once a major problem -- lead. In the '70s, the federal government required automakers to stop making cars using leaded gasoline.

As older cars were retired from the road, the level of lead in the air fell -- in Hamilton and surrounding Ohio counties, by 92 percent from 1990 to 2013.

"The important lesson is that when you look from a longer lens, you can see we are trending towards improvement," Kiser said. "The air you and I breathe today is much better than it was in the '70s or even early '90s."

Could the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has talked of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency altogether, change all that?

"We're trying to remain positive," Kiser said. "Health is pretty bipartisan. I think everyone understands it's important to protect the health of young people."

Regardless of what the government does, Alley said, market forces are pushing consumers toward renewable energy and driving the price down.

"I would challenge the president-elect to let renewables compete on a level playing field and see what happens," he said.