Albany Times Union: Capitol Region air quality improves as coal-fired plants, diesel emissions controlled

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BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer

First published: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ALBANY -- The good news: Air in the Capital Region continues to get cleaner, thanks to pollution control rules. Now for the bad news. It's still dirty enough to make vulnerable people with asthma and other breathing problems sick from time to time.

The number of days with unsafe levels of atmospheric ozone fell for the third consecutive three-year period, according to the latest annual report from the American Lung Association released Tuesday. "Our efforts to reduce emissions from sources including power plants and diesel engines are making a difference," said Scott Santarella, president and CEO of the American Lung Association in New York. "Conversely, the bad news in this report is that our own state capital is in a region with failing air quality. This report should be a wake-up call for the governor and our state legislators."

Air pollution sensors in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties found fewer days with unhealthy levels of ozone, an oxygen molecule formed through a combination of fossil fuel exhaust, sunlight and temperature.

Ozone, also known as smog, can cause lung damage, and aggravate respiratory illnesses.

From May to September, the Department of Environmental Conservation issues ozone alerts, which advise people to limit strenuous outdoor work or exercise. The state also urges people to use mass transit or carpool instead of driving, as automobile emissions account for about 60 percent of pollution that causes ozone.

From 2006 through 2008, there were 44 days among the four counties when ozone exceeded federal safety standards. That is down from 53 days in last year's report, which covered 2005-07, and 96 days in 2004-06.

Much of that drop has been caused by stricter federal rules adopted during the Clinton administration that required coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, a prime ingredient of ozone. Many power plants are concentrated in the Ohio River valley, where emissions can drift over the Northeast.

Michael Seilback, a lung association vice president, said the group is pushing to a proposed state rule requiring pollution controls be added to heavy diesel engines to reduce sulfur emissions. Also, the group wants the state to require lower sulfur emissions from home heating oil.

And, said Seilback, the group is backing a proposed rule from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to gradually phase out polluting outdoor wood-fired boilers. The boilers are becoming more widely used in rural areas where people are turning to wood as a way to trim energy costs.

The report's findings are based on a network of air quality sensors run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEC. In addition to ozone, there are sensors that measure particulate matter -- small particles of suspended solids or liquids -- that also are linked to the burning of fossil fuels.

What forms ozone?

When gasoline and coal are burned, nitrogen oxide gases and volatile organic compounds are released into the air. During warm, sunny days of spring, summer and early fall, NOx and VOC are more likely to combine with oxygen to form ozone. During the seasons, high concentrations of ozone are often formed during the heat of the afternoon and early evening, and are likely to dissipate later in the evening as the air cools.

Capital Region air: Getting Safer

The number of days with unsafe levels of ozone continue to drop.

Years unsafe days

2006-08: 44

2005-07: 53

2004-06: 96

2003-05: 80

Source: American Lung Association annual State of the Air annual reports for three-year period