Virginians Are Breathing Easier (Clean Virginia, Part 7)

Jul 8, 2015

In the last segment of our series called "Clean Virginia," WMRA’s Kara Lofton looked at the impact the Clean Air Act has had on Virginia’s waterways. This week, she takes a second look at the law and discusses the impact the act has had on the air itself.

When Dominion Power converted its oldest coal fired power plant (in Bremo Bluff, Virginia) to natural gas, here’s what happened: the greenhouse gas emissions from the plant, including carbon, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and promethium all plummeted. The station was converted as part of a process to obtain an air permit for a new station in Wise County, called Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center.

DAN GENEST: And the reason for that is we did not want the construction of Virginia City to have a net negative impact on air quality in Virginia. So by switching Bremo to natural gas there was actually a net improvement in air quality in Virginia, when we built Virginia City.

That was Dan Genest, a media spokesperson for the company.  He said they offered to make the switch.  The conversion cost the company $53.4 million and was probably not something they would have done if they hadn’t been seeking an air permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to open the Virginia City plant.

Air permits are required for major sources of air pollution (for instance coal fired power plants) that are either newly constructed such as the Virginia City plant or make any major modifications such as the Bremo plant. Additionally, the plants are required to install Best Available Control Technology, which controls and limits the emission of specific pollutants into the atmosphere.

The effect of these regulations reach into almost every aspect of Americans’ lives and include less polluted water, cleaner air for breathing, and increased visibility in national and state parks.  

Janice Nolen is the assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association. Every year, the association produces a report called “State of the Air,” which analyzes the amount of air pollution Americans are breathing in locations across the country. She credits the Clean Air Act with reducing the types of pollution that have adverse effects on Americans’ health.

JANICE NOLEN: We have reduced pollution since 1970 – the emissions EPA has been targeting by almost 70% (68%) since 1970 – but just since we have been doing our report we can see significant improvement in lots of places. From that information, the number of unhealthy days that we had when we first started doing the report (and the first report first came out in 2000 and looked at 1996-1998 data to today) and you can see places that have improved significantly in that much time with many, many fewer days of unhealthy air.

Nolen says fewer days of unhealthy air means days with less Ozone (also called smog) concentration. According to the American Lung Association’s website, Ozone, which is a “gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms…aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it.”

Ozone is created from a mixture of nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, which mostly comes from coal-fired power plants and motor vehicle tailpipes. The effects of both long and short-term exposure can include asthma, lung infections, lung cancer and even an increased risk of heart disease.

In the Valley, increased Ozone levels also greatly affect visibility in Shenandoah National Park.  Jalyn Cummings is the park’s air and water quality program manager. She and other park employees run an air quality monitoring station at Big Meadows. She said since major amendments were made to the Clean Air Act in 1990 that target sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, there has been a steady improvement in park visibility, which is vital for tourism.

For her the real point is that

JALYN CUMMINGS: Everything is connected. When you are talking about air you are talking about water, you are talking about soils, you are talking about ecology, it’s all connected. Our air environment affects every other environment that we use and that we play in.

Things are definitely improving in Virginia. The American Lung Association website now lists the Harrisonburg-Waynesboro-Staunton area as one of the 13 cleanest places in the country for both ozone air pollution and short-term particle pollution. But across the country, 44% of the nation still lives in areas where it is too dirty to breathe easy.