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Unsafe to Breathe

New standards released last week by the Environmental Protection Agency show that more cities than ever before in the Southeast have unhealthy levels of ozone, including Asheville, Rocky Mount, Greenville and New Bern. The new standards go further to protect the public’s health from ozone pollution, but fall short of the recommendations of public health professionals and EPA’s own scientists which recommended stronger protections.

“Unfortunately EPA has chosen to bow to political interests over the public’s health by releasing a ozone standard that falls short of the recommendations of doctors and other public health professionals. The fact that more cities than ever are failing to meet even this standard should serve as a wake up call to all North Carolinians that dirty air is everyone’s problem,” said David Farren, senior attorney with the non profit Southern Environmental Law Center.

Under the new standard, The Triangle, the Triad and the Charlotte area are expected to remain in violation of the federal standard, otherwise known as being in “nonattainment.” However, smaller cities including Asheville, Burlington, Brevard, Dunn, Elizabeth City, Forest City, Greenville, Hickory, Kinston, Lumberton, New Bern, North Wilkesboro, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Southern Pines, Washington, and Wilson will also likely be added to the list. These areas will face deadlines to reach the new standard or risk federal sanctions including tighter smokestacks controls and the possible loss of federal highway money.

“What we’re seeing is that unhealthy air is not just an urban problem,” said Farren. “Even small and mid-sized cities are going to have to tackle their air problems in order to protect the health of their citizens.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must set air quality standards at levels that protect public health, including sensitive populations, with an adequate margin of safety. In 1997, EPA set the national air quality standard for ozone at 0.08 parts per million (ppm) averaged over an eight hour period. The standard announced today is a slightly more stringent 0.075 ppm. However, in 2006, an EPA panel of scientists and public health experts unanimously recommended strengthening the ozone standard even lower, to within the range of 0.060 to 0.070 ppm, to adequately protect public health.

Power plants are a leading contributor to ozone pollution. In fact, the proposed Cliffside plant planned near Charlotte will emit 2400 tons per year of ozone-forming nitrogen each year under the existing air permit.

In addition to coal fired power plants, cars and trucks are among the biggest sources of ozone pollution in the South. To improve air quality, North Carolina must focus on strategies to reduce how much and how far its citizens drive such as investing in transportation alternatives and coordinating transportation and land use planning to reduce sprawl.

Lobbyists representing the oil, coal, electric power and manufacturing industries lobbied heavily against improved air pollution standards in the weeks leading up to the decision. However, EPA and OMB studies repeatedly show heath care costs and lost productivity far outweigh costs of clean up.

Ozone pollution, also known as smog, is known to trigger asthma attacks, reduce lung capacity, and has even been linked to heart disease and premature death. At its worst on hot, dry weather, ozone pollution causes officials to warn children and the elderly to stay indoors on many summer days. Children, whose respiratory systems are still developing, risk permanent loss of lung capacity through prolonged exposure to polluted air. For senior citizens, the natural decline in lung function that occurs with age is worsened by air pollution.

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