Take a deep breath, York County. Now, here’s how it compares to air quality elsewhere

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality began a series of six public information sessions this month on coal ash storage options at various sites. The final meeting is Jan. 29 in Belmont, N.C., for Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality began a series of six public information sessions this month on coal ash storage options at various sites. The final meeting is Jan. 29 in Belmont, N.C., for Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie. Charlotte Observer file photo

It may be a little easier to breathe in York County than in many other parts of the country.

Power plant and vehicle emission data shows conditions are improving in the Charlotte metro region. By some metrics, the air is cleaner in this region than in many parts of the country.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 20 released 2018 data on carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants in the continental U.S.

Nitrogen oxide (4 percent) and sulfur dioxide (6 percent) were down from 2017. Carbon dioxide increased .6 percent. Total electric generation increased 5 percent.

Annual sulfur dioxide emissions are down 92 percent since 1990. Nitrogen oxide is down 84 percent. Since 2011, carbon dioxide emissions are down about 20 percent.

“These data show that America is enjoying ever cleaner air as our economy grows, and the U.S. continues as a global leader in clean air progress,” said Bill Wehrum, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation. “Through state and federal fulfillment of the Clean Air Act, and advances by the power sector, we’ve seen significant reductions in key pollutants while electricity generation has increased.”

From 1970 to 2017, six pollutants regulated by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards dropped 73 percent, EPA data shows, while the U.S. economy grew more than 260 percent and the population increased. Nitrogen oxides dropped 20 percent from 2016 to 2018 for plants the EPA and states regulate for ozone.

Local air

Federal data tells only so much about air quality, and regions vary considerably with what types of power they produce.

The EPA subregion that includes the Carolinas and some of Virginia uses gas to produce just less than 30 percent of its energy. The nation uses gas at 34 percent rate, and Long Island, N.Y., at 89 percent. Mainland Hawaii uses none.

Nuclear is the dominant power production method in this region, followed by gas and coal. Nuclear power here makes up twice the share — almost 40 percent compared to 20 percent — compared to power production across the nation.

Carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are 19 percent lower here than nationwide. Sulfur dioxide is 63 percent lower here. Nitrogen oxide is down 29 percent in this region.

This region ranks eighth best among 26 subregions nationally for carbon dioxide, tied for sixth best for sulfur dioxide and tied for fourth best for nitrogen oxide.

Duke Energy provides power throughout the Charlotte region and beyond. According to the company, carbon dioxide emissions remained flat in 2018 while power generation went up more than 2 percent.

“This can be largely attributed to customers using more power through last year’s colder winter and warmer summer,” said Kim Crawford, company spokesperson. “An increase in the number of customers we serve, and a stronger economy that spurred more commercial and industrial growth, were also factors.”

Duke reduced carbon dioxide by 31 percent since 2005, she said, with a goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030.

“In 2018, nuclear, which is carbon-free generation, made up almost half of our actual next generation mix in megawatt hours in the Carolinas,” Crawford said.

Much of the Charlotte region is growing. Included are many parts of York and Lancaster counties, including Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Indian Land. Those new homes and businesses will bring more customers, and more need for power generation.

“This does not change our commitment to reduce our carbon emissions over time,” Crawford said.

Idling concern

While power plants can be major contributors to air pollution, so can cars.

High-traffic areas and peak traffic times mean more pollution-emitting gases and particles.

“One of the outcomes from congested operating conditions is the aggregate vehicle emissions generated from idling traffic and its adverse impact on air quality,” said David Hooper, administrator with the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study.

Hooper’s group has been working on traffic issues for years. Current forecasts show traffic throughout most of York County and Indian Land could worsen in coming decades. By 2045 most sizable thoroughfares will resemble the worst traffic spots among them today, the group projects.

Certain times bring predictably worse air quality.

“This is particularly pronounced during the summer months for ground-level ozone for our area,” Hooper said. “Essentially, this occurs when vehicular emissions are effectively ‘cooked’ as tailpipe emissions are emitted on especially hot days.”

Several hot days in a row can lead to higher particles in the air. An area can be designated “non-attainment” or “maintenance” depending on EPA-monitored pollutant levels. The RFATS area was listed in 2004 as non-attainment, upgrading to maintenance the past few years.

“Vehicular movement is proceeding in a more efficient manner as a general proposition,” Hooper said.

RFATS and Pennies for Progress funded road work has helped. So too have federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, or CMAQ, grants. That money goes toward projects to keep traffic moving, reducing the idling that pollutes the air.

A handful of CMAQ projects are ongoing in the RFATS area. Several others are planned or projected. About two dozen projects have been completed in the last decade.

Hooper said keys to keeping air clean are making sure roads and intersections operate efficiently and safely. A wreck on a major road can snarl traffic quickly, leading to idling.

Despite community growth throughout York County and Indian Land, air quality is better as RFATS, Pennies, CMAQ program and others improved intersections and stall points.

“That, of course, does not mean that traffic does not experience elevated congestion during the morning and evening rush hours,” Hooper said. “But that the degree of standing traffic at critical points across the traffic network have shifted in a positive direction overall.”

Health effects

Pollutants and particles in the air can cause respiratory issues. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 25 million Americans have asthma and 10 people die from it daily. A 2018 report ranks the 100 largest cities in the continental U.S. for asthma-related issues.

The rankings account for asthma prevalence, emergency department visits due to asthma and asthma-related fatalities. The Northeast and Ohio areas fared worst in the rankings.

In the Carolinas, only long-time North Carolina tobacco hubs Greensboro (No. 9) and Winston-Salem (17) ranked in the top 20 “Asthma Capitals” as the most challenging places to live with asthma.

Greenville (No. 48), Durham, N.C. (50) and Columbia (No. 62) all appear on the list before Charlotte (No. 63). Charlotte scores average for asthma prevalence and emergency room visits, and better than average for death rate.

According to the foundation, the roughly 8 percent of Americans who suffer from asthma likely to die from it are senior citizens. African-Americans are several times more likely to die from asthma than the white population. More boys die from asthma than girls, but more women die from it than men.

The EPA lists current air quality data on its AirNow page. Maps show ozone and particle ratings from good to hazardous, on a six-category scale. As of Feb. 28, Charlotte and the York County region showed good or moderate scores, the two best quality listings.

A good listing means no safety risk from air quality, a moderate listing that only a small number of people would be sensitive to the air.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control tests for six pollutants — carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, lead, inhalable particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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