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Breathing Room

The battle over new ozone restrictions pits asthma sufferers against skeptical industry leaders

by Glynn Wilson

Clean air is not something 12-year-old Carson Purnell of West Knoxville can take for granted. His ability to breathe, his very life, depends on it in ways most of us will never fully understand.

Carson was born in 1985, 15 years after the United States first embarked on an effort to clean up its air from a century of industrial pollution. From the very first day, according to his mom Denise, he suffered the same symptoms that afflict a growing number of children born every year: trouble breathing, reduced lung capacity, severe allergies, and asthma. Even after years of treatment with inhalers, shots, and drugs, exposure to the wrong thing could be life threatening.

Smog in Ol' Smoky

Take a look up in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on a bad pollution day. You can see smog vividly.

Jim Renfro, air resources specialist and an expert in biological processes for the National Park Service, sees it every day on this job. He says surveys of park visitors show that people come mainly for the scenery. (Although researchers don't ask about the need humans seem to have to get close to nature. This is what scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author E.O. Wilson of Harvard calls "biophilia.")

When those people come to the Smokies, as they do by the car, truck, van, RV, and bus load, they tend to notice when it's hazy, and wonder if that's how the Smokies got their name. For the record, the haze is not why the Smokies are called the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokee Indians called this "the land of blue mist," which was due to the "ethereal blue mist that once surrounded the mountains like a transparent veil," according to John Nolt, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee and author of What Have We Done.

The book is due out soon from Earth Knows Publications of Washburn, Tennessee. Nolt says early European settlers named the Smoky Mountains, later changed to the Great Smoky Mountains to entice tourists. He says the original blue mist consisted of water vapor and organic compounds released by trees.

"Today, most often in the summer months, the 'smoke' of the Smokies is supplanted by white, brown, or grey haze," he says. This haze consists of smoke, sulfate particles from the burning of coal at power plants, "and the more noxious volatile organic compounds that billow from the exhaust pipes of the millions of cars and trucks moving ceaselessly through the lands below."

How much smog should be allowed in the air of a national park, land set aside years ago to be preserved for future generations? How much can be considered safe to people, plants, and wildlife?

Pollution problems in the national park come in three forms: visibility, ozone, and acid deposition. Acid rain was addressed in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act and is on the way down, although its effects will be with us well into the next century. The visibility problem is getting worse and probably won't get much better anytime soon, no matter what happens in Washington. It used to be, in the 1940s, that on an average day in the Smokies, you could see for 90 miles. In five decades that has gone down 80 percent, to an average of 22 miles and only 12 in the summer. When the haze is at its thickest, Nolt says, a mountain peak a mile away can be nearly invisible. The ambient air quality rules now under consideration mainly concern ozone and particulates, major contributors to the visibility problem, but even if passed in their present form, they will not completely solve either problem, experts say.

"They do not go far enough, but we support it as a reasonable step to take," Renfro says. "It will help."

A person with asthma would have trouble breathing on a hazy day in the Smokies, especially in the high elevation areas. In one of America's most cherished and visited national parks, the dangerous kind of ozone is relentless. Cooler air carries it out of Knoxville at night while nitrous oxide eats it out of the air. Yet the highest points in the mountains suffer year round, day and night, according to Renfro. Studies show the primary pollutants present in the East Tennessee/Western North Carolina area are nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which contribute to the fine particulates being debated in the ambient air quality issue, and combine with ozone to create smog. While some nitrogen oxides occur naturally in the environment, numerous studies show they can be toxic to humans and biota and also perturb the chemistry of the global atmosphere.

The largest amount of NOx emissions, 45 percent, comes from cars and trucks on America's streets and highways, from internal combustion engines. Power plants account for 35 percent of NOx in the air, and industrial sources account for 25 percent, primarily from boilers. Eighty-two percent of the sulfur dioxide, the most prevalent and harmful of air pollutants, is produced from burning fossil fuels.

Of that, electric utilities are responsible for 39 percent locally, mostly TVA plants in Bull Run and Kingston. Automobiles account for 33 percent. Industry accounts for 13 percent. According to a study cited in Nolt's book, the worst local industrial polluters are Lenzing Fibers in Lowland, Eastman in Kingsport, and Champion in Canton, North Carolina. Another 12 percent comes from off-road vehicles and small motors, including planes, trains, boats, lawnmowers, chain saws, weed-eaters, leaf blowers, and the like, which are largely unregulated.

Other studies show that tall milkweed, a food source for many insects, sassafras trees, and black cherry, a food source for Black Bear, are already in trouble from ambient air pollution, in addition to acid rain. Yellow poplar are also being lost, and scientists worry that white pines are suffering as well, although studies at this point are inconclusive. At least 90 species of plants show some damage. Fish and the life of streams in the Smokies are more affected by acid levels than ozone or particulates, although at high enough levels, they can cause problems, Renfro says.

He says the levels of human-made pollutants have declined 60 percent overall for the past 50 years, yet sulfur dioxide levels have gone up. By the peak year for all air pollution in 1970, 2.2 million tons of sulfur made its way into the air in the U.S., up from 400,000 tons in the late 1940s. In the Southeast, the level today is about 10 million tons a year from all sources and is especially troublesome to humans, animals, and plants in the summer, when the highest pollution levels of the year coincide with bad weather conditions. Humidity, heat, and sunlight combine to create a chemical reaction, transforming sulfur dioxide into sulfates. The summer average sulfate concentration in the park is now 42 times higher than natural levels.

"Unhealthy air from ozone and particulates in this area is way too high now for active healthy adults and for those with disabilities," Nolt says. "It's about time we did something about it."


To see pictures of the haze in the Smokies, and to learn more about the air quality debate, visit Glynn Wilson's homepage on the world wide web.

Carson is now an active student at Bearden Middle School thanks to allergy shots two years ago. He still must take steroids. Carson, his parents, and his doctors have a name for bad air days--"packy days," when the air is hot, still, and heavy, when the atmosphere seems to press in on you. Carson's lung capacity may fall to 20 percent of that of a healthy person on such a day.

His family and friends also have a certain appreciation for the need for clean air. They watched Carson grow up dealing with a world in which contact with dust, pollen, a pollutant, or something as common in a child's life as peanuts and peanut butter, could trigger violent reactions. He may not fully comprehend the implications of the national debate now taking place over a new round of tougher ambient air quality standards, but Carson perks up when asked his opinion on the subject of air pollution.

"We need to do a better job," he says. "It would save a lot of kids."

Denise agrees, even though she's not necessarily in favor of more government regulation on other issues.

"You don't want to over regulate," she says, pausing to glance at her son, healthy by all appearances, checking his watch at the table in McDonald's, inhaler in pocket, "but when it comes to people's health..."

She doesn't finish the sentence, but her meaning is clear. Health occupies center stage in the debate over this year's proposed changes to national ambient air quality standards, written explicitly to protect public health under the 1970 Clean Air Act. While health advocates like the American Lung Association say the changes will help save thousands of lives a year, industry experts say the cost of meeting the new standards will far outweigh the benefits. Although most of the debate is happening in Washington, D.C., there are vocal East Tennesseans on both sides of the issue.

Not Breathing Easy

When Congress wrote the Clean Air Act, there was widespread support from the public, corporate America, and in the political arena. Republican President Richard Nixon pushed for the law with support from industry leaders such as Henry Ford II. The law was strengthened in 1977 during the Carter administration and amended again in 1990, two years after George Bush promised to be the "environmental president." A broad consensus exists that the Clean Air Act is one federal government program that has worked. The air is in many ways cleaner today than it was in 1970, certainly cleaner than it would have been without the law.

The latest proposed changes, which could be adopted this summer and implemented over the next decade or so, come primarily as a result of a lawsuity by the American Lung Association, filed in Arizona. The ALA claimed the Reagan and Bush administrations were not doing air quality reviews required by the law, and a federal judge agreed. He ordered the EPA to do a review and issue new standards.

The air quality review was embraced by EPA chief Carol Browner under the more "environmentally friendly" administration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Studies undertaken as a result have shown a link between high levels of ozone and particulates and emergency room admissions for asthma symptoms. The EPA issued its proposal last fall, setting off a firestorm of opposition from industry, cities, and pro-business politicians in state houses and Congress.

The entire proposal runs thousand of pages and is complex and legalistic. Its main thrust is to set more stringent standards for permissible levels of fine particulates and ozone. Not the good ozone, which forms a shield in the stratosphere against the sun's radiation, but the bad kind of ozone, the kind that chokes the life out of plants, animals, and people when it concentrates in levels considered dangerous, primarily in cities and mountains. The changes are not being embraced this time around by the corporate community, or by Republicans in congress.

The argument has to do with competing costs. While industry and local governments talk about costs such as taxes, higher power bills, and the loss of jobs and economic development, doctors and environment, and health advocates focus on the price of pollution in terms of medical and health care costs, work loss, special care services, other costs to society (such as restricted leisure, pain, and suffering), anxiety about the future, quality of life, and early mortality.

Asthma deaths have doubled in the United States and Tennessee since 1979, according to the American Lung Association, and the number of children suffering from asthma has gone up 72 percent since 1982. Denise Purnell says the numbers confirm what she already suspected. The offices of local doctors are often filled to capacity.

"It's hard to get an appointment these days," Purnell says. "So many more people seem to be developing these problems, especially children."

As many as 70,000 children and 130,000 adults with asthma live in areas of the state where ozone and particulate levels are considered unsafe, according to the American Lung Association of Tennessee. Another 750,000 children, 500,000 seniors, and 218,000 adults with other chronic lung disorders run a significant risk of lung damage because of high air pollution levels.

A 1993 EPA report named Tennessee the second worst state in the nation for overall air pollution, due to the release of more than 116 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air. The report was criticized in some quarters as misleading on the high end for simply reporting the total number of pounds released. In other quarters it was argued that the numbers are actually conservative, since the report only took what was reported by industries themselves. Releases from government agencies and other sources were not included.

A National Resources Defense Council report released in 1996 ranked Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Nashville among the 50 worst cities in the country in concentrations of particulates of 10 microns or more. Chattanooga ranked 20th out of 239, Knoxville 34th, Nashville-Davidson County 35th. Other studies show the elderly, people who exercise vigorously in urban environments, those with reduced oxygen flow due to heart disease, people with asthma and allergies, and the very young, are most at risk for long-term health problems due to ozone and particulate pollution.

Climatic conditions also play a role in the health effects of air pollution. Respiratory problems are worse in many parts of the South, where humidity is higher on average than in most of the West. In fact, the Tennessee Valley bioregion has near the highest incidence of stagnant air in the Eastern United States, according to a book scheduled to be released soon by the local chapter of the Foundation for Global Sustainability.

"Because industries tend to locate in sheltered valleys, toxic emissions often linger near the site or slightly downwind, prolonging exposures," says John Nolt, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee and author of What Have We Done: The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains.

"Implementing these standards will come at a cost," says Dr. James Snapper, past president of the American Lung Association of Tennessee. "But the cost of not implementing them is much higher--in dollars and in human life."

Bad Air or Bad Science?

The cost benefit argument is at the heart of much of the opposition, including the local opposition emanating from the City County Building. Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe says the city will face "another unfunded mandate" from the federal government. Shortly after the standards were announced, Ashe objected that cities should have had more input earlier in the debate. But the EPA accepted public comments up until March 12, and Mayor Ashe made no personal comments or a statement on behalf of the city for the record. According to aides, he contributed to the language in a one-page statement by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which voted March 4 to officially oppose the proposed changes.

"We agree it is important to continue progress towards improved air quality, but we feel the economic impacts should be considered before changing the standards," the statement says. Although no examples or studies are cited to back it up, the statement says the new standards "will impose a huge public cost on overburdened taxpayers to achieve uncertain goals. ... This would make it more difficult to attract jobs and recruit development to this area."

Knoxville and Knox County attained compliance with the 1990 standards in October 1993. With the ozone and particulate levels here now, however, the area would be out of compliance under the proposed standards, as would Chattanooga and the Kingsport area, home of Eastman Chemical.

The Tennessee Valley Authority and Eastman are on the record against the changes.

"If we could honestly say that 40,000 people a year are dying and the changes would end it, TVA would not oppose mitigating that," says Jerry Golden, a manager of environmental technology at TVA. "We are just questioning the science. Can we really say that? We believe it is going to cost the economy with significant job loss and corporate flight."

In Eastman's public comments to the EPA, dated March 12, the company accuses the EPA of relying on "seriously flawed" data and for failing to provide "scientifically credible evidence" to support a more stringent ozone and particulate standard. And since there is no "bright line"--or direct causal link--from the proposed standards to more protection of public health, the decision to propose more stringent standards "must be considered purely political."

Defenders of the new rules say they are based on the best science available for any environmental regulation ever adopted in the U.S., perhaps the world. Browner says the rules are "based on the best science we've ever had on any environmental regulation, from lead, mercury, dioxin, clean water, you name it. This represents 10 years of work and hundreds of studies which tell us these are the best levels we can establish to protect public health."

Ozone is a harmful gas that damages the lungs and airways and causes them to redden and swell. Fine particulate matter can be dust, soot or toxic chemicals, and is formed primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, oil, and gas. The mixture of pollution particles and ozone is commonly referred to, wittingly or unwittingly, as smog. The current ozone standard allows 120 parts per billion of ozone in the air over a one-hour measurement period, which is then averaged over the year. Cities and counties with too many hours on too many days over that limit face penalties ranging from losing certain federal funds to fines, although the EPA's record of enforcing the law has been criticized in the past as too lenient. The proposed standard reduces the allowable levels of ozone to 80 parts per billion (.08 parts per million), but lengthens the average measurement period to 8 hours. Most industry supports the 8-hour period, which would prevent a skewed one-hour sample from distorting the overall reading from monitoring stations. But there is strong objection to the .08 standard, which would throw many areas of the country out of compliance.

The current particulate standard regulates particles of 10 microns or more. The proposal would allow the consideration of particles down to 2.5 microns. (The average human hair is about 70-75 microns thick.) Recent studies have shown fine particulates are more likely to get deep into the lungs and cause severe damage, leading in some cases to premature death.

Making her case before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Feb. 10, Browner said three out of four health experts agreed that "the .08 level was the optimum level. One said .09. They all agreed that .07 would not benefit that many more people. This is where the science takes us. That is what the law requires of us."

The debate has gotten politicized, with Democrats generally supporting Browner and Republicans challenging the proposal. Even Sen. John Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island with a long record of supporting environmental initiatives, has asked whether the EPA is going "too far too fast."

The argument is kind of like the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. Like the papa bear, industry experts say the porridge is too hot, the proposal goes too far. Like the mamma bear, environment and health experts say the porridge is too cold, it does not go far enough. Like the baby bear, many independent academic scientists say it is about right, although predictably, they also say more money was needed for research.

Experts on the science of air pollution for General Motors, Exxon, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the electric utility lobby, and other industries attacked the standards, saying they are based on "bad science." Many of them talked about the potential costs for businesses and consumers, although cost benefit analysis is prohibited by law from consideration until the standards are actually put in place. Congress decreed with the first Clean Air Act that cost should not be a factor where public health standards were concerned. But how a community meets the standards is another story.

Public opinion research shows on average for the past decade that 75 percent of Americans rate clean air and water very high and are willing to pay for them. After spending billions to clean up emissions to try and reach the level of 120 ppb and to minimize particles of 10 microns or more from emissions, two basic questions are being raised by those from electric utilities, automakers, and other manufacturers: Is there a diminishing return? How much are we willing to spend to get the air how clean? As the argument goes, the closer you get to a cleaner environment, the more it costs to clean it up a little bit more.

For instance, TVA emitted 1.2 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the environment in 1977, the year of the first major changes to the Clean Air Act. This came primarily from coal-fired power plants in Tennessee and the other Appalachian states. According to Golden at TVA, the agency spent $2.8 billion to reduce emissions to 700,000 tons a year to meet the 1977 standards. After the tougher acid rain standards passed in 1990, the cost so far to try to comply by reducing emissions another 50 percent adds up to $780 million. To reduce emissions another few percent to meet the proposed standard, he says, could cost an estimated $1.6 billion. It will mean going back to the drawing board and coming up with more creative ways to reduce pollution. The planning will start all over again.

A Hazy Outlook

According to Browner and other proponents, industry projections of the cost of all anti-pollution laws have been "greatly exaggerated." No senator from Tennessee sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which held hearings on the issue in February. Sources say a fight is brewing in the House, however, although no members from East Tennessee have taken public positions yet.

Perhaps the best synopsis of the pro-regulation side of the argument from a member of Congress so far came from Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, in the March 5 Washington Post.

Waxman wrote that in the late 1970s, the last time the EPA set a standard for smog, the American Petroleum Institute predicted that "extreme social and economic disruption" would follow and that "impossible" controls would be imposed across the country. General Motors advised Congress that the rule would cause "widespread inflation and employee layoffs."

"The EPA adopted the rule and calamity didn't follow," Waxman's column continued. "When Congress considered the changes in 1990, those from the auto industry said meeting tougher tailpipe requirements was impossible, the oil industry predicted cleaner gasoline standards would cause supply disruptions and price increases, the utility industry predicted acid rain controls would cost $1,500 per ton of cleanup, and that the law would cost nearly $100 billion every year.

"In fact," Waxman said, "automakers have manufactured cleaner cars ahead of schedule, cleaner gasoline is being sold without price or supply problems, DuPont invented new substances (ahead of the law's schedule) that don't harm the ozone layer, and acid rain is being cleaned up at prices 94 percent under utility estimates. Overall, the 1990 law is costing approximately $22 billion, or just 25 percent of what industry predicted. Unfortunately, crying wolf often works in Washington, and industry is at it with a vengeance."

One of the biggest issues among the opposition is that technology does not exist to reduce ambient air pollution to the proposed levels. This could constitute a real problem if much of the country simply cannot comply at any cost. But proponents look at the record of history for reasons to be optimistic that technology will be found as the standards are implemented over the next few years. DuPont's development of an alternative to freon in air conditioners is a case in point. Freon--a major source of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, which damage the stratospheric ozone layer--was phased out beginning in 1990. Scientists say the hole in the ozone layer over North America and Antarctica is shrinking as a result, although studies indicate the problem will remain for years to come.

Will power bills go up in the Tennessee Valley if the EPA is successful in passing the new standards? There is no definitive answer. It depends on how the rules are implemented, which will be decided by local and state governments with input from citizens and industry representatives. Once adopted, states would have one year to identify areas in violation, another year to develop control strategies, and five years to achieve attainment, by the summer of 2004 if the current schedule is kept. What sector of the economy will bear the brunt of the tougher standards? Individual automobile owners? Electric utilities? Large manufacturers? Cities or states? Or some combination?

If the ambient air quality standards are adopted this summer, almost certainly with changes due to competing political and economic pressures, each state, county, and city will have a debate on how to comply. In some cases, large industries may bear the burden, where they are the primary source of the problem. According to Golden, electric utilities are easier to go after politically than car and truck owners, so he expects TVA to bear the brunt of the changes here.

By law, the EPA must consider all the public comments and respond in some detail. As of March 12, the last day comments were accepted, the EPA reported a total of 3,000 e-mail messages, 15,000 phone calls to the toll-free comment line, and 17,000 letters, enough to make a stack 20 feet high. Eastman's comments ran 42 pages, TVA's 50. The American Lung Association submitted about 10 pounds of documentation, a stack about six inches high.

In cities such as Atlanta and Nashville, automobile inspections have become the norm to try to reduce the levels of pollution from each individual automobile. That helped Nashville come into compliance with the current rules, which the city achieved only recently, but it will be faced with finding other solutions under the new standards. It may be that Chattanooga and Knoxville will have to consider automobile inspections as well, although no one is talking about it yet in public.

For the sake of Carson and others like him, Denise Purnell says she would be willing to pay the extra expense of auto inspections, if it would reduce sulfur dioxide particulates and ozone levels.

"In my situation I might be able to afford it better than some," says Purnell, whose husband, King Purnell, is president of SunTrust Bank of East Tennessee. "I'm going to get into trouble for saying this, but I wouldn't hesitate to spend a little more and have my car inspected. We did it in Atlanta, and it was a hassle--the waiting in line. But they were tough about it. If you got stopped without that sticker on your tag, the fine was really high. But I would do it if it helped save more people from the awful health effects."

Glynn Wilson is a freelance journalist and a doctoral student in communication at UT Knoxville.