Air Quality Challenge
A study points to inner-city risks from toxins
Should the city start up a restaurant recycling program?
An Associated Press study of federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Census data that identified neighborhoods surrounding downtown Knoxville as being highly at-risk to suffer air pollution from industrial toxins was published in the News Sentinel this month. The report raised a couple of immediate questions: Why those particular areas; and what potential or actual sources of the toxins are posing that risk?
After consultations with the EPA’s regional office, the state’s air pollution control division, and the Knox County Health Department, answers to those questions are still elusive.
Not enough “investigation on the ground” has been done to get that specific, according to Ken Mitchell, the EPA Region 4 chief of air toxics assessment and implementation in Atlanta, and it may not get done for several years. The EPA, he says, is working toward that goal.
The work is complicated by the fact, Mitchell says, that major industries are far from the only sources of toxic air pollutants. Everything from the obvious, such as the Rohm & Haas chemical plant just northwest of the downtown, to the much smaller potential sources, such as dry cleaners, auto body shops and furniture refinishing operations are possible offenders. And the little, sometimes overlooked sources can pose problems as deadly as the big ones, if their releases affect a nearby population center.
Lynne Liddington, the air quality management director for the county, concurs. Her office’s monitoring of air quality has been limited to determining levels of ozone and fine particulate matter, both of which are at high levels here. She says toxins are currently out of her realm and the kind of “sophisticated modeling” that could identify sources of airborne toxins and point to the areas that are susceptible to concentrations of those toxins has not been done yet. “Nobody that I know of does that right now,” she says.
Although EPA regulations require certain businesses and industries to report releases into the air of any substances from a list of 187 toxins, including flammable and corrosive materials, and to take steps to prevent further such releases, it does not have the human or technological resources to perform constant monitoring except in rare cases.
Quincy Styke, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s air pollution control division, says the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which requires reporting of releases, is not in itself a controlling mechanism, but he says it has made great strides in reducing air pollution. He says the state is issuing permits to industries under the federal standards and is tracking compliance. “We are seeing consistent reduction in hazardous air pollutants,” Style says. “We’re moving forward.”
Initial reaction to the AP report was that the convergence of vehicular traffic from I-75 and I-40 and other arterial streets and highways in the downtown area must be a contributing factor. That guess was discounted in this instance by the EPA, which considered only industrial sources within a 50-kilometer radius in providing its risk estimates. That radius eliminates from consideration all TVA coal-fired power plants except Bull Run on Melton Hill Reservoir near Claxton, which is about at the 50-kilometer limit.
Factories such as Rohm & Haas might also be suspected of air quality risk enhancement, but Paul Fortunato, plant manager of the Knoxville Rohm & Haas facility, says the company has cut emissions into the air by half since the late 1980s and is “well within all regulated limits” as it continues to reduce releases. “As a chemical company, we are highly regulated by all levels of government,” Fortunato says, “and we’re held to strict standards. We’re proud of our record.”
So there is no definitive way of describing today why the census tracts downtown, around UT, and to the immediate west and northwest ranked among the top 5 percent of sites nationally for being at-risk from airborne toxins. The data from both the EPA and the Bureau of the Census were from the years 2000, according to the AP report. Five years may have made some difference, but the fact remains that Knoxville and Knox County are high on most lists for poor air quality. Somebody out there is polluting this community’s air heavily, or threatening to do so. It’s just a matter of time before the culprits are lined up and ordered to desist. Don’t hold your breath, though. The experts are saying it will take years to get your air under control and back to its Nitrogen/Oxygen basics.|
Director of the Knoxville Recycling Coalition Jim Mongold says that many restaurants recycle grease because it’s profitable for companies to pick up, purify and reuse it. But aside from that and the city’s cardboard recycling program, he says that there’s very little recycling happening in restaurants. “Well, the restaurants themselves would have to do it, and handling things like glass is really difficult,” he says. “We don’t offer pick-up because it would be expensive and no one wants to pay for it and we can’t do it for free. We’d need the city to provide the service and underwrite it.”
The Sunspot on Cumberland Avenue does what it can to be more ecologically sound. Manager Dawn Ardison says they don’t have the space to recycle bar waste, but they do recycle kitchen items like metal cans and plastic containers. In addition, they donate food waste to be used as compost at Beardsley Farms, an AmeriCorps-sponsored community farm off of Western Avenue. “We do what we can with the limited space we have,” says Ardison. “We really reduce our waste by making those efforts. We’re just trying to cut down on stuff that goes to landfills.” For the most part, Ardison says she takes the materials herself to the recycling center in her truck once a week, but she’d like to see a joint effort among the city’s businesses. “I would really like to see some sort of pick-up service. It seems like it would be relatively easy on the Strip because all the restaurants are in a row, and we could just have bins out back. The big problem right now is that it’s not convenient.”
Likewise, some downtown businesses would ideally like to have a joint recycling effort. Scott and Bernadette West, who own several businesses downtown, tried at one point to recycle, but it became too difficult because of the massive volume. “We’d be willing to pay a fee to have someone pick up recyclables, because when you have businesses named Earth to Old City, Preservation Pub and the World Grotto, you want to be able to be conscious of the Earth,” says West.
Unfortunately, no such service is available. Waste Connections provides a curbside pick-up service to residential areas in Knoxville, but no corporate service for glass and plastic as of yet. “There are the drop-off centers throughout the city, but whether restaurants take advantage of that is up to them,” says district manager Benson Henry. “There’s a way to organize a downtown route, but we’d have to work with the city to get a recycling facility downtown. With all the new businesses coming downtown, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
The city’s downtown solid waste reduction specialist John Homa says, “We do have the downtown program for paper and cardboard pick-up and we’ve been looking at whether it would be feasible to expand that. We’d like to see restaurants recycle more, but with the equipment we have now, it’s just not possible.”
Always one step ahead of the curve, Tomato Head on Market Square recycles almost everything. Owners Scott Partin and Mahasti Vafaie have been recycling “for as long as I can remember,” says Partin. But it’s not an easy task. They keep trash bins in the back alley and pay an employee to take the loads each week. “I guess there’s not really a market for recycled glass and plastic, otherwise I’m sure someone would come pick it up. But you have to factor in the truck and the gas to haul it,” says Partin. He says he’d also like to see a joint effort toward downtown recycling. “I’m sure if someone were picking it up, more people would make the effort to recycle. And it would be a huge amount. Ours is a huge volume, about six or eight 50 gallon trash cans of glass and plastic per week…We’d happily pay for the service since we’re already paying someone to do it.”
Though no definite proposal has been made on the subject, city councilman Bob Becker would be in support of a restaurant recycling program. “I think recycling is something that we’ve got to do a better job at. There are so many restaurants downtown that there could be some economy of collecting,” he says. “Frankly, I think recycling is worth the public subsidy, but it’s just a matter of putting it together.”
Seven Days will return next week.