Environment

Waiting to inhale: NC’s air improves, yet ozone still a killer; plus McCrory still opposing Clean Power Plan

Aerial of Cliffside Steam Station in North Carolina. The coal-fired generating plant is equipped with sulfur dioxide scrubbers and SCR. Cleveland County, Rutherford County, coal pile, environment, fossil.

Aerial of Cliffside Steam Station in Cleveland and Rutherford counties. Duke Energy plans to burn less coal at the plant, replacing it with natural gas. (Photo Duke Energy) 

First, the good news: North Carolina’s air quality is better now than it was a decade ago. That’s due in part to more stringent federal and state regulations on electric utilities and coal-fired power plants.

Now the bad news: An estimated 115 people in the state die from ozone-related illnesses annually, according to a new report from the American Thoracic Society.  Ozone is created when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds. The major sources of these ozone-producing pollutants are emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents, according to the EPA.

Today and yesterday, ozone levels have increased from green to yellow (moderate) in half of the 41 counties in North Carolina regions that report air quality data.

Ozone is not the only threat to the state’s air quality. Earlier this year, the state’s Environmental Management Commission approved new, less-frequent emission reporting requirements for low-level polluters. However, the cumulative effects of these emissions could degrade air quality in low-income and minority communities. These are the same places where polluting industries tend to congregate, and where rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are higher than in wealthier neighborhoods.

And Gov. Pat McCrory announced earlier this month that North Carolina is joining 23 other states in challenging the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. They allege that it it’s an unconstitutional application of the federal Clean Air Act, passed during the Nixon administration. The Supreme Court granted a stay to the plan’s implementation while a federal circuit court in Washington, D.C., reviews it.

President Obama proposed the Clean Power Plan a year ago. It would require power plants that burn coal to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. Those emissions, along with methane, are a major contributor to climate change.

Even though states can select their own measures to meet new emissions standards, at least through 2029, McCrory has called the plan “federal overreach.” And many states that oppose the Clean Power Plan, including North Carolina, already are burning less coal, according to The Washington Post.  Had the plan been enacted, states would have been required to submit an final compliance plan — or an initial one with a request for an extension — by next week.

However, the plan has been delayed by the court case. Oral arguments are scheduled to begin in September before the federal court. A decision could come as early as late this year or in early 2017.

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