It’s July, and the heat is high in North Carolina, even hotter than usual — yet elevated ozone levels usually associated with hot weather haven’t materialized.
“Our temperature is running quite a bit above normal,” said Gail Hartfield, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Raleigh. “Every day in July has been 90 or better, except two.”
But as of Thursday, the Triangle had experienced only three Code Orange days this year — twice in April and once in June. The federal Environmental Protection Agency rates air quality according to how much ozone, formed by the combination of certain pollutants, sunlight, and heat, is measured by various monitors. Days rated as Code Orange or worse are considered potentially unhealthy for people with respiratory problems.
Even the days that triggered an ozone warning barely registered. On June 30 a single monitor in Fuquay-Varina climbed only to the .085 parts-per-million threshold set by the EPA. On April 19 a single monitor in Butner was triggered, and the following day it did so again, along with a monitor in western Johnston County.
The EPA says that if a single ozone monitor on a given day exceeds the .085 limit, then the entire region in which it sits is considered out of attainment. The Raleigh region encompasses 16 counties, from Person County to Northampton County on the Virginia border, down to Lee, Wilson, and Johnston counties.
Other areas of the state are experiencing fewer high-ozone days as well. The Triad has had only two Code Orange days, in April. The Charlotte area has had only three excessive-ozone days — two in May and one in June. There was only one Code Orange day, in May, in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Tom Mather, a spokesman for the state Division of Air Quality, attributed the improvements in air quality to a combination of more favorable weather patterns and the implementation of legally mandated emissions-reducing equipment on vehicles and power plants.
“This summer, even though it’s been very hot and dry, we’ve had a lot of mixing in the atmosphere,” Mather said. “We haven’t had as much stagnancy as we sometimes do.”
The state is also phasing in emissions testing as part of the annual inspection requirements for vehicles. Mather said the program is in place in about 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, and applies to vehicle models dated 1996 and newer.
“That is the majority of the vehicles on the road,” he said.
Mather also gave some credit to the measures taken by Progress Energy and Duke Energy under the state’s Clean Smokestacks law, which was passed in 2002. It required North Carolina’s two largest electric companies to place new pollution-filtering technologies, commonly known as scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction, at its coal-fired power plants throughout the state.
“That undoubtedly is having an effect,” he said.
The Smokestacks-induced process of installing emissions-reduction equipment at the two utilities’ coal-fired power plants is still in its early stages, however. Last year Duke finished a $450 million catalytic reduction project at the largest power plant in the state, the Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County. The company says that will reduce the plant’s nitrogen oxide emissions by about 80 percent. It also began a sulfur dioxide- reducing scrubber project at Belews Creek in May, which the company expects to be completed in 2008.
Progress Energy has yet to complete installation of any Smokestacks-mandated equipment, but expects its first scrubber to begin further reductions of sulfur dioxide at its Asheville plant this fall. Sulfur dioxide does not contribute to ozone.
Both utilities had already been adding catalytic reduction equipment to their plants in response to federal requirements, apart from the Smokestacks law.
This year’s minimal number of Code Orange days in North Carolina continues a trend.
“The last three years have been low, especially last year and this year,” said Joel Schwartz, an environmental consultant and visiting fellow for the American Enterprise Institute. “2004 was so far below previous years, that there’s got to be something going on besides the weather.”
He said part of the improvement might be due to the elimination of older, heavier-polluting vehicles off the roads.
“It’s possible the last couple of years that we’ve turned the corner on automobile emissions,” Schwartz said.
He said the improvement will continue, because each year new cars are produced that run cleaner. He said the trend in emissions reductions is exceeding the increase in travel on the roads every year, and that technological advancement is solving air-quality problems “much more cheaply and efficiently” than efforts to control urban growth and “sprawl.”
“Things are going to get better no matter what we do,” Schwartz said.
Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected].