Payoff from clean-air rules: Long mountain views

Views in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have improved markedly since the 1990s.
Views in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have improved markedly since the 1990s. National Park Service

North Carolina’s mountains and skylines are emerging from the milky haze that cloaks them in summer, thanks to clean-air rules put in place years ago.

State officials say long-distance views have steadily improved since the 1990s, when state and federal rules began limiting pollutants released by power plants, motor vehicles and industries.

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality says, average visibility on clear days rose from 54 miles in 1996 to 89 miles in 2014. Even on hazy days, visibility increased from 10 miles to 33 miles.

Bruce O’Connell, owner of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, said views reached their dimmest in the 1980s. Tourists thought, wrongly, that was why they’re called the Smoky Mountains.

O’Connell dates dramatic improvement to 2002, when North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act forced deep cuts in power plant emissions. It’s common now to see the antennae atop South Carolina’s Caesars Head 50 miles from his inn.

“Now they’re fabulous. This is now the norm,” he said of the views from 5,000 feet above sea level. “That means we can influence things if we try.”

The legislation targeted nitrogen oxides, which form the invisible gas ozone that aggravates asthma, and sulfur dioxides that cause the gauzy haze that blurs the mountains and Charlotte’s skyline.

Since the late 1990s, DEQ says, N.C. power plants have cut their sulfur emissions by 94 percent and nitrogen oxide releases by 88 percent.

Stricter federal limits on emissions from utilities and industries, and on new cars and trucks, contributed to the cleanup. So did federal requirements for cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel.

“We are literally able to see the improvements in air quality across North Carolina,” said Sheila Holman, state air-quality director. “Clearer air means that residents and visitors are better able to enjoy views of our mountains, coastal waters, urban skylines and other scenic areas.”

Fewer emissions have translated into healthier air. Although Charlotte has suffered six days of unhealthy ozone levels this summer, North Carolina meets all federal air-quality standards for the first time in decades.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender