Heavy Breathing

Who's to blame for our dirty air? The problems start with all of us. So do the solutions.

Knoxville is not what most people would consider a "big city." Oh, it's got its share of bars, malls, highways and entertainment. But it also seems as though everybody knows everyone else in this town. And you're just a short drive to the farmland or the woods.

But Knoxville's a big city in one very notorious way—air pollution. In fact, it has the ninth-worst air of U.S. cities, according to a report released recently by the American Lung Association. Sevier, Blount and Knox counties have the 12th, 13th and 15th worst air among the nation's counties. Between 1997 and 1999, there were 94 days when it was unhealthy to breathe the air in Knox County. There were 128 days between 1998 and 2000 when it was unhealthy to be in the Smoky Mountains.

With a metropolitan population of about 666,000, this city ranks right behind Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. in air quality. And our city beats out the much larger metropolises of Philadelphia, Sacramento, Dallas, New York, Nashville, Memphis and Phoenix. While many cities around the country are starting to make air cleansing strides, East Tennessee remains smoggy.

"This part of the country is not improving as fast as the rest of the country. In many ways we've become the poster child for bad air," says Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a non-profit group that advocates for pollution controls. "Everybody talks about how bad the allergies are in the Tennessee Valley. Well, the other shit in the air is contributing too.

"Most of the time we're running around in this soup. If you can see [the pollution], you breathe it."

East Tennessee's air is bad for a variety of reasons. Coal is burned heavily in this region for power in plants that are several decades old. Having two major interstate highways intersect in the middle of town doesn't help, either. But geography, stagnant air and warm weather also conspire against us.

"A lot of it has to do geography. We're the lowlands before the mountains," says Ulla-Britt Reeves, also of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "The wind carries in all the air pollutants from across the state and region, and they get held in this pocket or bowl...The bowl in between the Cumberland Plateau and the Smoky Mountains really just holds all the pollution and the sulfate particles."

The warm weather is conducive to the formation of ozone. And sulfur particulate matter likes to attach itself to the water molecules in the humid air—creating the bad haze.

Jim Renfro, air resource specialist at the Great Smoky National Park, says big cities generally get a break from ozone pollution during the evening. But at higher elevations like the Smokies, ozone levels tend to stay high throughout the night. "Our mountains stick up like a sore thumb," Renfro says. "If anything, we don't get a break."

In addition, East Tennessee tends to be less windy than other regions. So ozone can hang in the air for a while before a front moves in and disperses it.

We can't rearrange the mountains or create more wind. But we can reduce the amount we pollute.

Power Polluters

Pollution comes from a lot of different places, but in the Southeast the biggest emitter is undoubtedly the coal-fired power plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority is known for its network of dams, yet 60 percent of the power it produces comes from coal. (Hydro-electric accounts for 6 percent, nuclear 31 percent and natural gas about 3 percent, according to TVA.)

Which means every time you turn on a light switch, you're polluting. Providing power to 8 million people, TVA is the largest power company in the country, with enough capacity to produce 30,000 megawatts of electricity. In 1998, it burned 41 million tons of coal. In 1999, it released more than 775,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a cause of lung disease, acid rain and haze; and 352,000 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a catalyst for ozone and an ingredient in another type of acid rain. (TVA is not the worst polluter in the region—that title goes to the Southern Company, which generates power for Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.)

TVA has taken steps to cut its nitrogen oxide emissions. Since 1995, they've been reduced by 40 percent, and the company plans to cut them by 75 percent by 2004. The cuts are made by installing selective catalytic reduction devices (or SCRs) at some of its boilers. However, the SCRs are only in operation during May through September, when ozone is most likely to be formed.

John Ship, TVA's environmental compliance officer, says the SCRs won't run year-round because TVA is focusing on ozone pollution. "It costs a lot to operate them because the SCR requires the use of ammonia," he says. "The cost of the ammonia is significant."

TVA has been less successful at cutting sulfur dioxide emissions, according to Smith. The utility installed scrubbers at six of its plants.

"Scrubbers can cut SO2 emissions by 90 to 95 percent. Only six of TVA's boilers have scrubbers on them and only two of the scrubbers are high efficiency," Smith says.

TVA claims that it has reduced SO2 emissions from 2.3 million tons in 1976 to 700,000 tons last year. It plans to reduce them to 400,000 tons by 2005, Ship says.

But Smith says that TVA overcomplied in the first phase of the Clean Air Act, mostly by barring high-sulfur coal. When tougher emissions requirements kicked in in 2000, TVA was able to use sulfur reductions it had banked over the past five years in order to meet the new requirements, he says.

But putting these pollution controls on power plants is expensive—each scrubber costs $1 to $3 million, depending on the size of the boiler. In the short term, TVA could reduce emissions by switching to natural gas—which is much cleaner and more efficient than coal and would thus reduce nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

But Ship says shifting from coal to natural gas isn't desirable.

"TVA has built several and is building several natural gas plants," says Ship. "But the natural gas market is a very volatile market—prices skyrocketed last year and still have not come down. I don't think anybody knows what the price of natural gas will be in five, 10, 15 years from now. And when you're building a power plant, that's what you're looking at."

When Congress revised the Clean Air Act, it exempted pre-1985 power plants from complying with the new air standards—utility officials argued they'd be replaced soon and there was no sense in spending money to upgrade them.

But most of these plants have remained on line, as utility companies try to avoid complying with the new regulations. TVA plants are, on average, 41 years old.

According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, if all U.S. power plants were forced to comply with the new standards, Tennessee would reduce SO2 emissions by 624,249 tons a year and NOx by 276,790 tons a year. The latter figure would be the equivalent of taking 14.2 million cars off the road.

At some point, it doesn't make much sense to keep retrofitting coal burning plants with pollution control equipment—the expense gets so high that it becomes cheaper to simply build a more efficient, cleaner plant.

But what the new power sources will be is up for debate. TVA took a progressive, if small, step by creating the Green Power program. By paying an extra fee, customers with some of the utility companies TVA supplies can have their money go toward cleaner energy sources—solar, wind and methane gas from landfills. With almost 11,000 customers, the program has been hugely successful, and TVA recently put out a request for bids to provide at least an additional 20 megawatts of wind power—almost five times its current capacity. (Green Power capacity was scheduled to be 8 megawatts right now, but for a variety of reasons is only 4.25 megawatts.) But it's an almost infinitesimal part of the company's 30,000 megawatt capacity.

"The rub for us is the harder we push on [reducing] coal, the more TVA starts talking about nuclear," Smith says. "It's like going from smoking cigarettes to crack. We don't support that. It's trading one environmental problem for another."

Cheapest, Fastest, Cleanest

Marilyn Brown had hit the gold mine. She found a bunch of fluorescent floor lamps styled after the popular halogen torchiere lamps on sale at Home Depot for $25 a piece. She bought eight of them, and gave several away as gifts. The fluorescent version looks the same and provides a similar ambient light, but would save consumers hundreds of dollars in electricity over the life of the lamp. They're also much less of a fire hazard. But they weren't selling in East Tennessee, so Home Depot was clearing them off its floors. Brown hasn't seen them for sale in this area ever since.

"The public is not making good decisions about energy use. They're not well-informed, particularly in the Southeast," says Brown, who is director of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Electricity is cheap here. So we don't have a culture of paying attention to it."

The easiest way to reduce pollution is to reduce power usage. That's both good and bad news here. Tennesseans have a nasty habit of burning up lots and lots of power, and getting them to conserve won't be easy. But on the other hand, it means there are some pretty simple things people can do cut pollution.

Americans, on average, consume 866 kilowatt hours a month. Tennesseans burn up 1,250 kilowatt hours a month. Alabamans aren't much more frugal, using an average 1,140 kilowatt hours a month.

A household whose electric bill is about $100 a month (or around 1,667 kilowatt hours) is responsible for burning 1,477 pounds of coal a month, or 9 tons a year. Producing that energy will result in 335 pounds of SO2, 177 pounds of NOx, and 42,197 pounds of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.

"Energy efficiency is an easy way to reduce pollution," Brown says. "I like to say conservation is the cheapest, fastest, cleanest."

Brown and her colleagues released a massive report late last year on how efficiency and clean energy could cut energy use and reduce pollution. With an aggressive conservation program, the nation could cut energy use by 20 percent of what it's predicted to be by 2020. The investments could pay for themselves in energy savings.

The biggest savings would be found in electric utilities, transportation and industry, but residential and commercial buildings would also see substantial cost reduction.

The reduced energy production would naturally mean less pollution. CO2 emissions would be reduced by 30 percent from projected levels by 2020. NOx, SO2 and Mercury emissions would also be cut substantially.

Ways to conserve range from simple maintenance to new space-age gizmos and technology.

Businesses, industry and government could save a lot of energy with routine maintenance of heating and air conditioning systems. There are also new technologies that can be implemented—for instance using stronger nickel alloys in industrial furnaces makes them run hotter and longer (for a more complete combustion that is thus more efficient with fewer waste products).

In homes, something as simple as a heat-pump water heater (which pulls in heat from around a water heater to reduce electric use to heat the water by half) would cut U.S. energy use by 1 percent if everyone's home used one. One percent might seem small, until you consider that the country's energy bill is $552 billion a year.

"I like to talk about it not as conservation, but let's not waste what we've got," says Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association of Tennessee. "And we can do it in ways that won't seriously affect our lives."

Breathe Your Exhaust

Probably the dirtiest thing people do every day is drive. About one third of all nitrogen oxides is emitted by motor vehicles. Cars also give off hydrocarbons (another smog inducer), carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.

So, every time you find some other way to get around—taking the bus, walking, riding a bike, car pooling—you're reducing pollution. But there's no denying it's tough to get around in American culture without a car—our sprawling development patterns and our love of SUVs (which until recently, had looser emissions standards) have turned most of us into major polluters.

The American Lung Association's Nolen says Tennesseans drive twice the number of miles as the average American each year.

"Part of that comes from how we develop our cities, the fact that we say you've got to have a car to get everywhere, the fact that we don't put in sidewalks," Nolen says. "If you've got to drive everywhere, it's going to mean you're going to have more air pollution.

"People don't associate the way we live with the kinds of pollution we have."

Reducing the amount you drive can have a huge effect on pollution levels. Nolen takes the '96 Olympics in Atlanta as a case in point. To deal with the 2 million people visiting the city, Atlantans made a concerted effort to not drive. Instead, they relied on mass transit, worked from home and avoided the streets. Although it was done for practical reasons, it had an added benefit—hospital admissions for asthma dropped 40 percent, Nolen says. "It made a measurable effect on human health," she says.

Since 1995, Nashville (which ranks slightly better than Knoxville, with the 16th dirtiest air in the country) has had mandatory emissions testing for motor vehicles. The test costs $6 and checks for hydrocarbons, among other pollutants, says Harry Dugan, who oversees the emissions program in Davidson County. Those who fail the test get a 30-day grace period after their tags expire to get the problems fixed, Dugan says.

"Usually, it's a lack of maintenance. It could be as simple as spark plugs or spark plug wires," he says.

About 9 percent of the 460,000 cars they test each year fail, Dugan says. (Four surrounding counties also test another 300,000 cars.)

"We've definitely shown some improvement [in air quality]," Dugan says. "You get a lot of dirty vehicles off the road."

The upkeep and maintenance of cars can go a long way toward making them run cleaner. Even something as simple as checking your tire pressure once a month can mean a couple more miles out of each gallon.

Nashville was forced to test its cars by the Environmental Protection Agency because of its dirty air. Nolen expects Knox County will soon be forced to start testing vehicles as well. Lynne Liddington, director of Knox County's air quality monitoring program, says the EPA is currently trying to figure out what would make the biggest cuts in air pollution here, before imposing any new regulations. She says they're waiting to see how pollution controls being installed by TVA will affect emissions.

Last month, the governors of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia signed an agreement to combat air pollution using a regional approach. That's about all they did—pledge. No concrete measures were agreed on.

But it could be worse. Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, a proponent of his state's coal industry, didn't even sign that agreement. And 12 other governors from the Southeast didn't bother to come to the conference.

It's easy to get frustrated. Little is being done to reduce pollution, even though the problems it causes are concrete and expensive (both in terms of financial and social costs).

Jim Renfro has seen a lot of the damage in the Smoky Mountains. Fish killed after a downpour of acid rain. Trees blotched from ozone damage. Views reduced from 100 to 10 miles. Hikers unable to breathe well in one of the world's oldest mountain ranges.

But he remains hopeful that people are slowly realizing the damage that's been done. He's seen heightened awareness about the issues, and governments starting to tackle the problems.

"I've seen improvement just in the last few years," Renfro says. "But things are not going to happen overnight. We didn't get into this overnight."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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