Dirty Air

EPA: Area's air too dirty

Knox official claims progress made, blames broken monitors

By Michael Collins
WASHINGTON - The air over Knoxville and four surrounding counties is too dirty and doesn't meet new federal standards designed to protect public health from fine particle pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.

The federal agency formally designated the counties - Knox, Anderson, Blount, Loudon and part of Roane - as "non-attainment" areas, meaning they did not meet the 24-hour standard used to measure particulate matter.

Particulate matter is emitted by power plants, factories and automobiles and can cause a number of serious health problems, including aggravated asthma, heart attacks and premature deaths.

The counties must submit a plan to the federal government by 2012 showing how they intend to bring the region into compliance. The region must meet the standards by 2014.

The air in Knox County is actually cleaner than it has been in some time, but a problem with equipment used to monitor air quality caused the region to be designated as non-attainment, said Lynne Liddington, director of Knox County's Department of Air Quality.

The EPA evaluates data from three consecutive years to determine whether a county is in compliance with the federal pollution rules. In this instance, the data evaluated was collected between 2006 and 2008.

But some of the air-quality monitors in Knox County broke, causing some of the 2008 data to be lost, Liddington said.

"The data we are measuring meets the standard," she said. "It's just not enough. It's a quality-assurance issue. There's not enough data to say we're meeting the standard."

The broken air monitors have been replaced, Liddington said, and the county is on target to meet the federal pollution standard this year.

"We haven't had any exceedances so far this year, so it looks like a clean year for 2009," she said.

If the county meets the standard the next two years, it will be taken off the non-attainment list and probably won't have to submit an implementation plan for cleaning up the air, Liddington said.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, applauded the counties for working to make the air cleaner but questioned whether the data collected this year is a true reflection of the region's air quality.

This has been a mild, wet summer, which could affect the amount of fine particles in the air, he said. The sputtering economy also may have caused industrial activity to drop off and people to cut back on their travel, he said.

The EPA's 24-hour standard for fine particle pollution is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The federal standard had been 65 micrograms per cubic meter but was strengthened in 2006.