Albany Times Union: Strict rules lift air quality

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The Capital Region breathes easier due to Clean Air Act rules, health advocates say

By BRIAN NEARING Staff writer

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

ALBANY -- The air in the Capital Region continues to get cleaner, thanks to federal pollution control rules that limit smog-forming emissions from power plants, according to the latest annual report from the American Lung Association in New York.

Air pollution sensors in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties are finding fewer days with unhealthy levels of ozone, also known as smog, which can cause lung damage and aggravate respiratory illnesses, like asthma.

Ozone is an oxygen molecule formed through a combination of fossil fuel exhaust, sunlight and temperature. It is worse during hot days and usually dissipates at night.

From 2007 through 2009, there were 43 unsafe ozone days in Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady, and Saratoga counties combined, when ozone exceeded federal safety standards. That is one day less than the 44 days in last year's report, which covered 2006-08.

There were 53 days unsafe days in the Capital Region in 2005-07, and 96 days in 2004-06, according to previous reports.

There were substantial differences in ozone levels locally, with Saratoga County having the most unsafe days at 19 and Schenectady County having the least at four. Albany County had nine days.

Rensselaer County was one of only two counties in the state -- the other was Dutchess County -- to see an increase in unsafe days from the previous year's report. Rensselaer County had 11 unsafe days, up by one day from before.

The worst county in state, Suffolk County on Long Island, had 34 unsafe days in the latest report.

"It's hard to know why that is for certain," said Michael Seilback, vice president of state lung association. "It could just an extra day or two of warmer weather than allowed the ozone to bake more."

Lung association officials said the results show that strict pollution regulations are working.

"The federal Clean Air Act and other clean air laws are working," said Sandra Kessler, interim president and CEO of state lung association. "To ensure all New Yorkers breathe healthy air, it is our job to make sure that Congress doesn't weaken the Clean Air Act and state government doesn't roll back important clean air regulations."

Much of the drop in ozone levels 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.

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, because automobile emissions account for about 60 percent of pollution that causes ozone.

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.

Unsafe days drop

The number of days with unsafe levels of ozone in the Capital Region continue to drop.

Years unsafe days

2007-09 43

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