Charlotte meets air standard

View of uptown Charlotte skyline from atop Mosaic Village at Johnson C. Smith University.
View of uptown Charlotte skyline from atop Mosaic Village at Johnson C. Smith University. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte has attained the Holy Grail of air-pollution standards, finally meeting federal limits for ozone – and saving motorists money.

The Environmental Protection Agency published a notice Tuesday saying metro Charlotte had met the ozone standard after years of improvement.

EPA also said it will relax its requirement that Charlotte-area gasoline stations sell fuel formulated to reduce ozone-causing emissions in the summer. That should make gas a little cheaper, state officials said.

When the gas standard was relaxed in the Greensboro and Raleigh areas last year, gasoline prices dropped about 7 cents a gallon. Drivers in those cities saved $18 million last summer, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said.

Charlotte was the last metro area in North Carolina to meet the standard. That means the whole state meets all federal air-quality standards for the first time since 1997.

Ozone forms in hot, sunny weather from chemical compounds released by motor vehicles and industries such as coal-burning power plants. The invisible gas can make life miserable for people with respiratory diseases, such as children with asthma, and can worsen heart and lung diseases.

The state posts daily ozone forecasts for the thousands of residents susceptible to air pollutants.

Trends have improved in recent years. North Carolina’s 2002 crackdown on power plant emissions, federal emission limits and cleaner-burning motor fuels all lowered ozone concentrations.

About one-third of North Carolina’s counties violated ozone standards in the early 2000s. By 2013, the state broke the standard only once. In 2014, no violations were recorded.

Charlotte dropped off the American Lung Association’s annual list of the nation’s smoggiest cities in 2014 for the first time in 15 years.

Despite this summer’s withering heat, records show the state has exceeded the ozone standard on only one day – in Charlotte and in Forsyth County – so far this year.

DENR plans to shut down 19 of the 115 air monitors in its statewide network as it struggles with budget issues, a spokesman said. A regulatory reform bill before state legislators would close any monitors not required by federal law.

But because EPA is required to revisit air standards every five years, to reflect advancing research into health impacts, Charlotte’s travails with ozone aren’t likely over.

Not until 2013 did the city meet the ozone standard set in 1997. And EPA is scheduled to introduce a tougher standard in October that Charlotte isn’t expected to meet.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender