2015-05-06 / News

County’s air pollution level decreasing, new report says

By Donna Burch

James Haskins/Chesterfield ObserverJames Haskins/Chesterfield ObserverCounty residents can breathe a little easier in knowing air pollution levels are improving in the region, according to the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report.

Chesterfield earned a grade of “C” for its ozone pollution levels this year – a noticeable improvement over last year’s “F” grade. The county retained an “A” grade for short-term particle pollution levels.

The association’s annual report assigns grades to counties for ozone and particle pollution based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) color-coded Air Quality Index. The 2015 report is based on data collected from official EPA pollution monitors during 2011, 2012 and 2013.

“The difference observed [in this year’s report] was the consequence of there being five fewer high ozone days in Chesterfield County in 2013 than in 2010,” explained Kevin M. Stewart, director of environmental health with the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, in an email.

“Why that should be is a good question,” he continued. “I can tell you that some broad reasons for the decline were likely to have been reduced air pollution from sources even hundreds of miles upwind, such as dirty coal-fired power plants, and a somewhat cooler, wetter summer in 2013 that would have retarded ozone formation.”

Motor vehicles, power plants, gas stations, chemical plants and refineries are common contributors to ozone pollution (also known as smog). Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons combine with heat and sunlight, creating a highly reactive gas molecule that is harmful to breathe. Ozone pollution levels are highest during the summer.

The county averaged five “orange days” for ozone pollution annually during the study period, compared to seven in last year’s report. A day is rated as “orange” when ozone pollution reaches unhealthy levels for sensitive groups, such as young children, older adults and people with lung disease.

There were no “red days,” where ozone pollution levels were high enough to impact the health of everyone. Chesterfield averaged two such days in the 2014 report.

The State of the Air report also assigns grades for particle pollution (commonly known as soot), a mixture of tiny, airborne solid and liquid particles that come from industry, mining, construction and other sources.

The county did not have any “orange” or “red” days for short-term particle pollution levels during the evaluation period. This is the fourth year in a row the county has received an “A” for short-term particle pollution.

The county did not receive a grade for year-round particle pollution levels this year due to insufficient data.

Cause for improvement?

There’s no single source that can be blamed for the region’s air pollution. A combination of sources, both local and from afar, influences ozone levels.

According to data from the EPA, about 70 percent of the state’s ozone pollution blows in from out of state. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which will require more than 20 states in the eastern half of the country to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions that are blowing across state lines and contributing to unhealthy pollution levels.

“People who live downwind of these major polluters need this decision because the ozone and particle pollution in their communities threatens their lives,” the association said in a statement following the court ruling.

Studies have shown that about one-third of Virginia’s ozone pollution stems from industry and power plant emissions. Another third comes from motor vehicle emissions, with the remainder originating from various sources, such as construction and yard equipment and volitile organic compounds leaching from paints, solvents and other products.

Locally, two of the state’s largest contributors of air pollutants are taking steps to reduce emissions that lead to higher ozone levels in the region. Chester is home to the Chesterfield Power Station, Dominion Virginia Power’s largest fossil-fueled plant. The coal-fired plant supplies about 11 percent of the electricity used by Dominion’s 4 million customers.

Dominion has spent more than $3 billion in recent years on new environmental controls at its facilities in Virginia and other states.

“Dominion commissioned a new scrubber at the Chesterfield Power Station in 2011,” said Rob Richardson, a Dominion spokesperson. “That follows the addition of a scrubber that was added in 2008. All four coal units at Chesterfield Power Station are attached to a scrubber. This air pollution control equipment reduces particulate emissions and nitrogen oxide emissions. It also continues to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by over 95 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent.”

Dominion also has converted three of its coal-fired power plants in Hopewell, Altavista and Southampton to use biomass as fuel, and its Bremo Power Station in Bremo Bluff transitioned from coal to natural gas last summer. A coal-fired unit in Chesapeake closed late last year, and another in Yorktown is anticipated to close next April.

Honeywell’s Hopewell facility also is in the midst of a $100 million upgrade of its emission controls.

“Honeywell will install eight emission control systems … on four production lines at the plant,” says Peter Dalpe with Honeywell’s Performance Materials and Technologies division. “These systems will reduce the plant’s nitrogen oxide emissions into the environment by roughly 6,000 tons per year.”

The upgrades should be completed by 2019.

Nationwide results

According to the association, more than 138 million people in the United States – nearly 44 percent of the nation’s population – live in areas with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution.

Nationally, this year’s State of the Air report showed mixed results, with many cities experiencing strong improvements in air quality, while others had increased episodes of unhealthy air.

In 2013, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. It also aggravates symptoms in people who suffer from asthma, allergies and chronic heart and lung conditions.

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