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Smokies air quality clearly improves; fails tougher standards

6:46 PM, Jun 20, 2013   |    comments
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More than 30 years ago, the legislature of Tennessee officially adopted the song Rocky Top as an official state song. Unfortunately, the lyrics "ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top" were inaccurate the moment they were penned in 1967 by songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant.

The reality is smog, haze, and air pollution has plagued East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains ever since coal power plants began generating electricity in the twentieth century.  A cloud of particles have obstructed the views in the national park for several decades.

"People come here for scenery. It's the number one reason people come to the vistas and the Park is for these views and they expect clean clear air," said Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  "From this observation tower [at Look Rock along the Foothills Parkway], you get a great view."

The clearest view of the air in the Smokies may come from inside windowless buildings at the top of Look Rock.  A collection of three small buildings are filled with computers that graph and analyze the composition of the air at the Look Rock Air Quality monitoring station.

"Behind me are racks full of computers and instruments for measuring various gasses in the atmosphere such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide," said Steve Mueller, air quality researcher for TVA.  "This monitoring station has documented the improvements in air quality."

Scientists with TVA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the GSMNP have all teamed up to track air pollution. The data clearly shows regulations that cut TVA's emissions have made positive changes in the air.

"In 2008, TVA started to put on scrubbers at our nearby power plants. The changes in the air are incredibly significant.  Acid rain levels dropped and ozone levels improved," said Renfro.  "The changes in the air are also clear because we have clearer air.  Visibility on our haziest days has almost tripled in the last decade.  In 1999, you could see nine miles on the worst days.  Now on our worst days, we have visibility of 25 miles."

While the drastic improvements are encouraging, Renfro said it is the first step in a long term path to return to natural visibility levels.

"The EPA says by 2064, we've got to get visibility to about 80 miles, so we've got significant work to do if we're going to get to natural conditions," said Renfro.

Right now East Tennessee is classified as a "non attainment" area by the EPA, which means the counties fail to meet minimum EPA standards for air quality.  Renfro said while that is troubling, he warns people not to mistake the failing grade to mean air quality is getting worse.

"The EPA has toughened its standards for air quality.  They've 'raised the bar' for what qualifies as a passing grade through the years.  We are not where we should be, but without a doubt the air is exponentially better than it was and it continues to improve.  Visibility, acid rain, ozone levels all have improved. Air quality has significantly gotten better over the past decade and that's great news."

This summer the EPA issued grants to a group of scientists from the North Carolina and California to study the composition of the air at Look Rock.  Specifically, the new study focuses on how organic air particles from natural sources interact with man-made emissions.  The "Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study" will utilize the monitoring station at Look Rock as well as using NOAA aircraft to collect air samples in various regions of Tennessee.

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