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Code Red 

What's causing all those ozone alerts? It's more than traffic-- and it's more than the state of North Carolina wants to deal with.

It's summer, and the ground troops of the N.C. Public Interest Research Group--mainly college students--are going door-to-door in the Triangle, as they do every year. Their job: Get people riled up enough about something the government's doing wrong so they'll sign a petition and contribute to the cause.

And because it's summer, the PIRGs (as they call themselves) are finding that this year's issue gets people to open their doors more readily and listen a bit longer than usual. The issue is smog--or ozone, to be scientific.

"North Carolina is a place where people take a lot of pride in our quality of life," says Elizabeth Ouzts, NCPIRG's executive director, "and they understand that the air-quality problem is a threat to that quality of life."

By now, Ouzts says, most folks know that the Triangle's summertime smog pollution is serious and getting worse. The steady stream of "ozone alerts" by our TV meteorologists has seen to that. Many know that the American Lung Association recently ranked the Triangle as the 17th worst place in the country for ozone pollution and Charlotte as eighth worst.

What people don't know, however, is what's causing the problem. They think it's all the cars and clogged traffic. But that's just part of it. The other big part is the nitrogen oxide--the NOx--spewed by coal-fired electric power plants located throughout the North Carolina and our neighboring states to the west. Put NOx together with the earth's rich supply of hydrocarbons, bake them in the summer sun when the wind is down and presto, you've got ozone.

The fact that North Carolina's 14 coal-fired plants acocunt for 45 percent of the NOx produced in the state--more than the 30 percent attributable to cars and trucks--is news to virtually everyone, Ouzts says. The fact that these 14 older plants, like more than 500 others across the nation, are "grandfathered" under the federal Clean Air Act is downright alarming to folks, she says. It means they aren't covered by the main provisions of the act, allowing them to emit up to 10 times the pollution a new plant is allowed.

Why aren't they covered? Because when Congress passed clean-air legislation in the 1970s, industry lobbyists argued successfully that the old coal-burners were on their way out anyway--no need to put the companies to the expense of outfitting them to meet modern emission standards. But the coal-burners are still up and running. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 toughened the standards for new plants but once again let the old ones off easy. A decade later, deregulation of the utility industry is the order of the day around the country, and as utilities compete for customers, they say cheap coal-fired power is helping them keep their rates low.

But at what cost? The giant Belews Creek power plant in Stokes County, owned by Duke Power Co., is the third-biggest NOx emitter in the country. Last year alone, Belews Creek spit out 62,600 tons of the stuff, or 57,000 tons more than a new plant of its size would be allowed to emit. Number 22 on the national bad-news list is Carolina Power & Light's Roxboro plant, just north of Durham, with 34,400 tons emitted in 1999--exceeding modern plant standards by more than 22,000 tons.

Hearing all that, most people readily sign the PIRGs' petitions calling for something to be done to clean up the mess. "Our campaign is going very well," Ouzts says with a smile.

What's the solution to North Carolina's NOx problem? NCPIRG and a coalition of 10 environmental groups want the state to crack down on Duke Power and CP&L, forcing them to cut NOx pollution by at least 80 percent over the next few years. They'll make their case in July, when the state's Environmental Management Commission holds a series of public hearings on a plan offered by Gov. Jim Hunt that would let the utilities off with a far smaller reduction. (See "Speak out," page 17.)

Critics charge that Hunt's proposal is based more on politics than science, a bow to the utilities' power in the General Assembly and to their generosity to his own gubernatorial campaigns. (See "Sacred cows?" page 16.) Hunt's defense: His plan is part of an overall strategy that addresses motor-vehicle emissions as well as power-plant pollution, and considers the "economic impact" as well as the health effects of getting tough with the utility companies.

Hunt's plan would require the utilities to cut NOx by about half. Environmental groups are divided over whether that's a step in the right direction or just plain inadequate. But none of them is willing to settle for 50 percent: They plan to turn out in force at the hearings to argue that an 80 percent cut is needed to get the smog problem under control.

"The smog-alert days are coming earlier every summer, they're more severe, and we're having record-breaking numbers of them," says Molly Diggins, executive director of the Sierra Club's state chapter. "The best science available indicates that we need higher reductions than what the governor is proposing to address the problem."

The 17-member EMC has promised to consider the environmentalists' alternative proposal. The commission will also consider a proposal from the utilities themselves that promises reductions of about 35 percent. The utilities will argue that the state should not make them do more, since the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may come down on them soon with its own set of rules.

The EPA has been trying since 1998 to curb NOx emissions in 22 Eastern states. The agency maintains that because air pollution can travel long distances from its source, it should be addressed as a regional issue rather than state-by-state. But its efforts have been blocked so far by lawsuits from industry and from eight of the states, including North Carolina. Time may be running short for the objecting states, though: Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the lawsuits, leaving North Carolina and the other states the option of one last appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the EPA has its way, North Carolina will be forced to make Duke and CP&L cut NOx emissions by upwards of 75 percent. According to the federal agency's figures, we're the nation's seventh-biggest NOx polluter. Our 14 plants emit more NOx than the plants in Connecticut, Deleware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York combined. But since those states are upwind of us, they get some of the stuff we generate. "The point," the EPA's Robert Perciasepe says, "is that we all have to work together on a regional basis."

Hunt's determined opposition to the EPA's regional approach is one reason his own plan is under fire for falling short, particularly from environmentalists based in the mountains. There, the severe ozone problems are largely the result of out-of-state sources--in this case, NOx from plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. As long as North Carolina lets its own utilities pollute, say folks like Appalachian State University professor Harvard Ayers, so will its neighbors.

"Unless we can say to the TVA that we've cleaned up our act," Ayers asked when the governor presented his plan at a forum in Asheville, "how can we ask them to clean up theirs?" Ayers, who heads a Boone-based organization called Appalachian Voices, went on to ask another question of the governor: "Are Duke and CP&L sacred cows?"

That question is sure to pop up again at the EMC hearings. Diggins says the hearings will be "major events" for the state's environmentalists, who hope to put air-quality issues on the top of the state's priority list after years of back-burner treatment by the Hunt administration. "People are coming together all over the state," Diggins says, "not just to influence the EMC, but also to educate the public about what the problems are and what we need to do about them."

The smog caused by NOx emissions is not the only air-pollution problem confronting North Carolina. Sulfur dioxide emisssions--"SOx" to the clean-air crowd--is the major cause of particulates, or soot, that the EPA has blamed for more than 40,000 premature deaths nationwide. Once again, much of the problem lies with the utilities' old coal-burning plants. They're biggest source of SOx pollution and of carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas that is considered a threat to the earth's ozone layer (that's the "good ozone," up in the atmosphere, that protects us from the sun's deadly rays). And then there's mercury, which is emerging more and more as a threat to aquatic life. Where's it come from? The coal-fired plants are again a major source. "Coal," concludes Elizabeth Outzs, "is just very, very dirty to burn."

Environmental groups hope the July hearings will shed light on these other problems, too, and prompt state action on them. But there's already been some action against SOx pollution, which was addressed in part by amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act and is being reduced by the cleaner-burning gasolines that are starting to come onto the market now as part of a federal mandate to cut SOx pollution at least in half.

By contrast, NOx is "the unfinished business" of air quality, as Harvard Ayers says. And when it comes to smog, NOx is the villain, plain and simple.

In the Triangle, we see it in the form of ozone alerts--the "code red" or "code orange" warnings to limit outdoor activities. Last year we had 29 alert days, all of them prior to mid-August, when the early storms and hurricanes starting blowing in. In 1998, we had 40 alert days.

For most of us, these alerts are simply a precaution not to overdo it. (See "Decoding the codes," page 15.) Breathing ozone at high concentrations for any period of time can "oxidize," or burn through, lung tissue and cause swelling of the airways in the lungs. But for people with asthma or other chronic respiratory illnesses, the alerts are a far more serious matter, and may send them to a hospital emergency room or worse.

"On a code-red day, or especially the day afterward, or if we have had several bad days in a row, that's when I can expect to see a number of people who are having trouble breathing," says Dr. Wes Wallace, who teaches emergency medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill and helps staff the emergency room there. Most folks, he says, respond to treatment with oxygen and inhalers to open up the air passages. But some need to be hooked up to a machine that assists their breathing. For that, they require a hospital admission to an intensive-care unit for several days.

"It's not just a handful of folks, either," Wallace says. "It's a broad-based health problem." When the state's Clean Air Task Force looked at health data from 1997, it found some 240,000 asthma attacks and 5,700 emergency-room visits attributable to ozone-pollution episodes. And it's only gotten worse since then.

Through June 22, the Triangle had already recorded six alert days, one of them code red. In Charlotte, the problem is even more severe. They had 34 alerts last year, one of which was an almost unheard-of code purple, which means ozone levels were above 125 parts per billion (ppb). They've had another one this year.

The Triangle's never hit purple--yet. But on our worst day in '99 we came close, at 124 ppb. Anything above 85 is considered unhealthy, and prompts a "code orange." A "code red" is triggered by levels of 105 ppb or higher.

As bad as the problems are in North Carolina's cities, they're worse in the mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park had 52 alert days last year, and they're ahead of that pace so far this year, says park spokesman Bob Miller. The recording station on Clingman's Dome, North Carolina's second-highest peak, set a record early this month with a 128 ppb reading.

In the mountains, according to Ayers, there's a better understanding of what causes ozone pollution. For one thing, since there's not as much automobile traffic to blame it on, people know it's got to be coming from something else as well. And the problem is not invisible in the mountains. It's right there for everyone to see--when the haze clears, at least.

At elevations above 5,000 feet, the red spruce trees and Frasier firs that once decorated the mountain peaks have collapsed. Ground-level and aerial reconaissance of the problems below, to a level of 4,500 feet, show that the northern hardwoods--beech, birch and sugar maple--are in very bad shape. Below that elevation, the damage isn't obvious yet. But cross-sections taken of the trees down there show they've stopped growing. "It take years for trees to die," Ayers says, "but the problem is there too."

In the 1980s, when the trees started dying on Mount Mitchell, the state's highest peak, people used to debate the cause. "Was it a bug?" they'd ask. Now it's well-known that air pollution is the culprit, especially ozone. What makes it worse is that, unlike in the cities, the smog can linger for days at a time and all night long--"24-7," Ayers says--at higher elevations. The reason is the complex way in which NOx reacts in the atmosphere.

During daylight hours, both in the mountains and in the Triangle, NOx turns into ozone. But here, at night, NOx emissions actually "eat" ozone, reducing it to a harmless state. In the mountains, since there's virtually no automobile traffic at night, all the smog can survive until dawn, making the next day's problem that much worse.

But aren't power plants sending NOx to the mountains? Yes, they are, Ayers says, but not every day--or every night. The NOx in western North Carolina comes mainly from the TVA's plants, and it typically arrives the day before an "ozone event" begins, carried on the prevailing westerly breeze. Once in a while, the breeze will blow from the east, carrying NOx from North Carolina power plants. But whatever the direction, if the wind dies and the NOx is left hanging in the mountains when the sun comes out, ozone quickly forms and then sticks around until another wind or a rainstorm comes to carry it away.

Ayers believes it's because of this complex interaction that studies indicate a 50 percent cut in NOx--the amount Gov. Hunt's plan recommends--does not give you a 50 percent cut in ozone. "It's not a linear relationship," he argues. "It's a curve."

In fact, a little cut in NOx may do no good at all, in Ayers' view. Last year, Appalachian Voices commissioned Orie Loucks, an expert from the University of Miami (Ohio), to survey the scientific literature on the subject. Loucks found that the leading study, in Atlanta, showed that ozone levels did not drop until NOx emissions were reduced by at least 70 percent. They dropped sharply when the NOx cuts reached 80 percent or more.

Tom Mather, a spokesman for the state Division of Air Quality, calls Ayers' argument absurd. "It's like saying that if you need to lose 30 pounds, losing 15 pounds won't help you. That's a pretty big stretch."

Some of the other environmental groups haven't embraced Ayers' view either--but they still believe that cutting NOx in half would leave big parts of North Carolina with too many ozone-alert days that threaten people's health and jeopardize the environment. They also invoke another part of Loucks' report, which examined what ozone pollution costs the state's agriculture and forest industries. Timber losses nationally have been estimated at $5 billion a year, and are probably higher in North Carolina than average. Crop damages amount to at least $25 per person nationally, and since the worst-hit crops are soybeans, peanuts and tobacco, once again the state's costs are probably higher than that.

Put it all together with the medical bills, and a conservative estimate of ozone pollution's costs to everyone in North Carolina is $98 a year, Loucks reported. For comparison's sake, Gov. Hunt's cleanup plan would cost every Duke and CP&L customer $10.84 a year, according to state estimates. The environmentalists' plan would cost about twice that, or $22 a year.

The Hunt administration argues that it hasn't been idle since it locked horns with the EPA. Last year, the General Assembly enacted clean-air legislation that extends auto-emissions testing to 48 of the 100 counties in the state over the next six years; just nine counties (including Wake, Durham and Orange) have it now. And a new test will monitor NOx as well as carbon-dioxide emissions, which the state hasn't been testing at all.

Most significantly, the state has adopted a tougher standard for measuring ozone violations--one that the EPA was blocked from introducing nationally by a federal appeals court last year. The new standard measures average ozone levels over eight hours rather than just one hour, recording violations at lower parts-per-billion levels. This is considered a better judge of smog's health effects, since prolonged exposure to ozone at a lower level is considered worse than brief exposure when the numbers spike higher.

But Hunt continues to resist the idea that NOx emitted from North Carolina plants can be blamed for ozone violations in, say, Maryland. He maintains, therefore, that the federal government has no authority to supercede the state's powers when it comes to telling Duke and CP&L what to do. Last week's appeals court ruling, however, supported the EPA's view that smog problems in the Eastern United States are indeed regional in nature. The court gave North Carolina and the other objecting states four months to decide on plans to curtail NOx emissions. Hunt's only recourse now is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Don Reuter, a spokesperson for DENR, says the state is considering an appeal. That could prolong the battle for months, if not longer.

Meanwhile, Hunt has proposed that the state EMC adopt his plan for power-plant emission cuts. Where the EPA would require around 75 percent NOx reductions, and the environmental community argues for about 80 percent, Hunt urges the EMC to give the utilities two easier choices:

Option 1: Cut slightly more than 50 percent of NOx emissions at the so-called "Big Five" power plants, including Belews Creek and two others owned by Duke Power and two plants owned by CP&L: the Roxboro plant and the Mayo plant, also located in Person County.

Option 2: A cut of slightly less than 50 percent total at all 14 plants.

The difference in the two plans amounts to more than numbers. The first option calls on the utilies to install state-of-the-art technology at the "Big Five" so emissions can be reduced to the same levels required of newer power plants. The state-of-the-art technology is called SCR--select catalytic reduction--and means that new equipment would be installed in the plant flues so ammonia can be forced into the flue gases before they're released. The ammonia breaks down NOx to a harmless nitrate.

Under the second option, the utilities could get away with simply refitting all their boilers--something that, to some extent, the '90 Clean Air Act amendments are already forcing them to do anyway. By contrast, if the state had to adopt the EPA standards, or went with the 80 percent proposal by North Carolina environmentalists, the utilities might have to fit out all 14 plants with SCR equipment.

Critics of Hunt's approach, like NCPIRG's Elizabeth Ouzts, say that given a choice, the utilities will take the second option because it's cheaper--way cheaper. State air-quality officials have estimated the cost of the second option at $76 million a year and the first at $112 million. The cost of the environmentalists' plan is estimated at $145 million a year. At a minimum, the critics say, the EMC should force the utilities to choose Hunt's first option as a way of moving them in the direction of a thorough clean-up.

CP&L spokesperson Mike Hughes says the company is committed to cutting its emissions, but he says "the science is definitely incomplete" on the relationship of NOx to ozone-related health problems. Moreover, he says, the company thinks the state should hold off forcing them to choose SCR or any other technology until it's clear what the EPA's rules will call for. In the meantime, CP&L is experimenting with a Swedish method of boiler modification at one of its smaller plants and a Russian method at another, and has started to install SCR technology into one of the four flues at the big Roxboro plant. "No one size fits every option," Hughes says.

About half of CP&L's generating capacity is represented by its seven coal-fired plants, according to Hughes. A third comes from its two nuclear plants and the rest from plants that use natural gas. The coal plants could be converted to cleaner-burning gas-fired plants, he says, but it would very expensive and the gas supplies don't exist right now in North Carolina to run them.

Like every utility in the country, CP&L is gearing up to operate in a deregulated marketplace. It already sells power to customers around the country--via the national power "grid"--and is intent on keeping its own customers in North Carolina should this state deregulate, as a legislative study commission has just recommended. In a regulated market, any costs imposed on the utilities by state or federal rule-makers can simply be passed on to the customers--the "ratepayers." But in a competitive market, higher costs mean lower profits.

So far, utility customers in the Triangle have saved a few bucks by letting Duke and CP&L keep polluting, and the smoke from the big Roxboro plant blows mostly into Virginia anyway. But the EPA, Outzs and other environmentalists are calling on us to be better neighbors--and save ourselves a lot of environmental and health problems in the process. And if being good neighbors doesn't move us, they say, then at least we owe something to our fellow Carolinians up in the mountains, who are begging Raleigh to set a good example so the states blowing smoke their way will have a better example to follow. EndBlock


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