Tonowanda News: Air quality remains unhealthy

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April 29, 2010
By David J. Hill The Tonawanda News

— — Although there have been slight improvements, air quality in Erie and Niagara counties remains unhealthy, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2010 report released Wednesday. Overall, Western New York's air quality is poor, the report reveals.

"While many portions of this year's report are encouraging, far too many residents in the western part of the state are breathing air that puts their health at risk," Scott T. Santarella, president and CEO of the ALA in New York, said.

Several factors contribute to the air quality in the Tonawandas, including the area's number of manufacturing plants, such as Tonawanda Coke and NRG Huntley, plus emissions from idling cars at the Grand Island bridges, where traffic backups have increased lately because of roadwork.

Both Erie and Niagara counties received failing grades for ozone pollution, with Erie ranking fourth-worst among counties in the state for its 24 high ozone days. Suffolk County on Long Island is the most polluted, with 41 high ozone days, followed by Chautauqua and Westchester counties. While it reduced its orange ozone days to 19 from 32, Niagara County still received a failing grade.

"Two of the largest sources of ozone pollution are power plants and vehicle emissions," said Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications for the ALA in New York. "Tonawanda Coke and Huntley certainly are going to be two major sources of localized air pollution. That's not to say they're the only sources," he said, adding that the region's air quality is also affected by pollutants that spread from sources in the West and Midwest.

The ALA study serves as an annual air quality report card for the nation, and is based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's color-coded Air Quality Index, which ranges from orange — air quality that's unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children and the elderly — to purple, which indicates "very unhealthy" air quality.

The study examines two pollutants — ozone and particle pollution. Ozone is the primary ingredient of smog air pollution, according to the ALA. "When it's breathed in, it acts like getting a sunburn on your lungs, and that could lead to wheezing, tightness in your chest, and it could trigger an asthma attack," Seilback said. Particle pollutants contain microscopic particles that are smaller than the width of a human hair. "When breathed in, it acts almost like sand paper on our lungs," he said.

Erie County received a D for short-term particle pollution, up from an F in last year's report. Niagara County went from a D to a B in that category, with only two orange short-term particle pollution days, compared to eight last year.

Seilback said the report highlights some of the things people can do everyday to improve air quality in their communities, such as using mass transit and conserving energy. The ALA in New York also is pushing for the state to create a diesel cleanup fund, which would help municipalities and private fleets retrofit their diesel vehicles with a muffler that could reduce pollution up to 90 percent.

There also is some promise in the efforts being taken to crack down on benzene levels emitted by Tonawanda Coke. "I'm hopeful that after the recent reports and crackdowns that we're going to start to see some improvements at that facility," Seilback said. "But it's going to be a few years before we actually see those results on a report card."