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Report says W.Va. air quality improving, but still poor

By Marcus Constantino

Multimedia reporter

Charleston Daily Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An American Lung Association report scheduled for release today indicates West Virginia’s air quality is improving, but still ranks poorly compared to the rest of the country.

The “State of the Air 2015” report indicates the Charleston-Huntington-Ashland metropolitan statistical area ranks 40th-worst out of 381 for year-round particle pollution — improving seven spots from 2014. The Wheeling metro area was tied with the Erie-Meadville, Pa., and Shreveport-Bossier City, La., regions for 23rd-worst, though annual levels have been improving in Wheeling since 2010.

West Virginia was given particularly poor grades in the report for ozone pollution. Kanawha County received a grade of “D” in the report because ozone reached levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” nine times from 2011 to 2013.

Deborah Brown, President and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said in a statement that the report indicates mixed results across the country. While some areas, like West Virginia, showed improvement, others showed increases from last year’s report.

“The Charleston metro area can certainly be proud of the progress we’ve made in cleaning up our air since the first ‘State of the Air’ report 16 years ago,” Brown said. “However, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make our air healthy for all of us to breathe.”

The EPA’s Air Quality Index is a measure of air quality based on ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels. The index has six degrees ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous.”

According to 2014 EPA data, Brooke County recorded three days with ozone levels considered “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” which is below “Good” by three steps. Ohio County recorded one such day. No other counties reached that level of pollution in 2014.

In 2012, 11 West Virginia counties, including Kanawha, recorded at least one day deemed “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.” Kanawha County hasn’t experienced a rating that low since then.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, former Kanawha County health chief, now state health officer and commissioner for the state Bureau for Public Health, said any elevated levels of air pollution can cause issues for the most vulnerable.

“Air quality is important as it protects human health,” Gupta said. “Poor air quality can aggravate existing conditions especially in vulnerable populations including children, senior citizens and people with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The prevalence of asthma in the adult population in West Virginia is 9 percent while COPD is 10.6 percent.”

Fred Durham, Director of the Division of Air Quality for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the reductions in ground-level ozone and particulate matter across the country can be attributed to efforts to reduce emissions, particularly nitrogen oxide.

“The largest component historically has been electric generating units, and that’s where the focus for the control programs has been,” Durham said. “Many of the large utilities have put on special scrubbers, like selective catalytic reduction, to reduce the nitrogen oxide, and those controls have reduced the actual emissions not only statewide, but in a regional sense as well.”

Utility companies are faced with stringent new EPA emission standards proposed by President Barack Obama that call for a 30 percent reduction in carbon pollution from the power sector by 2030.

Some plants, including the Glasgow plant owned by American Electric Power, are being shut down; others are undergoing costly upgrades to bring them into compliance. The installation of scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide at AEP’s John Amos plant in Winfield cost the company $1.4 billion.

Durham said the American Lung Association and regulators use different methodologies to present air quality information. Durham said that the Air Quality Index is a complex equation derived from the EPA’s air quality standards — and West Virginia is meeting nearly every EPA criterion.

“The entire state of West Virginia is currently in compliance in attaining all the national air quality standards,” Durham said. “For sulfur dioxide, we have two small areas that are not meeting (pollution standards) … but for all the other criteria pollutants, we’re in compliance with all the federal standards.”

Durham said Brooke and Marshall counties had monitoring data that indicated levels of sulfur dioxide exceeding EPA standards, but that more recent data shows Marshall county is back in compliance.

Brown said cleaner diesel fleets and power plants have helped with reductions, but that more work needs to be done to protect the health of citizens.

“Reducing pollution will only become more challenging because warmer temperatures increase the risk for ozone and particle pollution, and make cleaning up the air harder in the future,” Brown said. “We need stronger air quality standards to limit pollution and continued cleanup of current sources of air pollution in the Charleston area to protect the health of our citizens.”

Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or [email protected]. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.

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