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  Who's Driving This Thing?
The Year in Review


Burn, Baby, Burn

It was one of the worst forest fire seasons in 50 years, and East Tennessee did not escape unscathed. More than 4,000 acres burned in the Cherokee National Forest in October and November, three times the average. Only two buildings burned, but property damage is estimated at several hundred thousand dollars. Forest fires—which threaten people's homes, businesses and logging revenues (and occasionally, their lives)—have a way of turning even the most ardent free-market industrialists and property rights advocates into conservationists, of sorts. News that the U.S. Forest Service would be beefing up its firefighting force was welcomed. But few people in East Tennessee made the connection that the fires might be partly our fault. Logging generally leaves forests more susceptible to fire by taking the larger, more fire-resistant trees, and leaving the weaker, vulnerable ones behind. And global warming might be playing a role, as droughts become more frequent and longer-lasting in a warmer climate.

A Breath of Fresh Smog

In 1999, there were a record 52 days when it was unsafe to be in the Great Smoky Mountains because of high ozone levels. In 2000, the number dropped to 32 but it was not because the region suddenly stopped polluting. The weather was simply cooler, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. However, 2000 had the longest ozone season on record—with the earliest (March) and latest (November) high ozone days recorded. Air pollution levels in the park rivaled the country's largest cities, and the Smokies is the country's most polluted park. In the Southeast, power plants are the biggest culprit, producing 39 percent of the nitrogen oxides, which forms ozone, according to the Park Service. Cars are a close second, at 33 percent, and other industrial sources produce about 10 to 12 percent. High levels of ozone sears people's lungs, making it harder to breathe, causing headaches and other irritations. Nitrogen build-up in the soil is also interfering with nutrient cycling and is acidifying the Smokies streams. Another air contaminant—sulfur dioxide—causes lung disease, haze and reduces visibility.

There is some good news. TVA is working on putting better controls on its antiquated power plants, which should drastically cut emissions. It also became one of three power producers to start a registered "green power" program, which uses wind, solar and methane from landfills. Although quite small for now, it has the potential to revolutionize the power industry. And clear the air.

December 21, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 51
© 2000 Metro Pulse