Hot weather, drought and ozone gang up on Tri-Cities

Matthew Lane • Aug 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Not only will temperatures be in the mid-90s, but today is also expected to be an Ozone Action Day, according to an alert from the Ozone Action Partnership of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

The OAP issued a warning that today will be an Ozone Action Day, where ozone levels will be unhealthy for people with sensitivities such as lung disease and asthma. People who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms, the OAP states.

However, the general public is not likely to be affected when the air quality is in this range.

The OAP is advising people to cut back or reschedule strenuous outside activity and postpone lawn mowing and the filling of gas tanks until the evening. In addition, people should choose a cleaner commute, drive a vehicle that gets the best gas mileage, and limit engine idling.

“Skip the drive-through,” the OAP states.

Between 1995 and 2006, the Tri-Cities region has had nearly 300 violations of the ozone standard of 85 parts per billion (ppb), the level federal officials say impacts public health.

The violations topped out at 52 in 1999 and fell to fewer than 10 in 2005. Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities entered into Early Action Compacts with the Environmental Protection Agency to avoid penalties for non-attainment — which can include a halt in permitting new industries and a loss of federal highway dollars.

All three areas have until 2007 to meet attainment levels based on a three-year average of the fourth-highest eight-hour periods. There are two monitors to check ozone levels in Sullivan County — one in Indian Springs and the other near Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

Bill Sorah, chairman of the OAP, said today could be the last day of noncompliance for Sullivan County if ozone levels exceed 85 ppb.

“If we have one more (non-compliant day) this year then that could be problematic,” Sorah said.

The current Early Action Compact grants Sullivan County amnesty from the punitive side of non-attainment. If the three-year average of ozone is 84 ppb or less, Sorah said Sullivan County would be fine. If not, then the county would be at non-attainment.

However, Sorah said the county has made a lot of effort to bring the county’s air quality into compliance, including lowering the speed limits on Interstate 81 and Interstate 26 and implementing a burning ban on Ozone Action Days.

“We were the first group in the state to form a partnership and seek this type of program. We’re one of three in the state to receive an Early Action Compact from the EPA, which is indicative of closeness of us being at attainment,” Sorah said.

Thousands of cars, trucks and campers — along with dozens of private jets — have arrived in the Tri-Cities this week for the Sharpie 500 and other races at Bristol Motor Speedway. Combine that with the 90-plus degree weather the region has had all week, and the outlook for exceeding EPA air quality standards today appears likely.

Sorah said whether or not Sullivan County exceeds the limit today will depend more on the weather than anything else.

“If we have a summer that’s wet and cool, you don’t have ozone issues. If it’s a summer like we’ve had, then the weather is conducive for low-level ozone, and that’s something we can’t control,” Sorah said. “We’re going to have more cars than we have during a normal weekend, but they may be far enough from the monitors to have an effect. But the prevailing winds would factor into the equation.”

Kingsport City Manager John Campbell said great strides have been made in the region by the OAP in raising awareness and developing concrete action plans to mitigate potential impacts during times of higher ground-level ozone concentrations.

“With the unusually intense hot weather this year, it has been a bit more of a challenge for the region,” Campbell said. “As always, we are deeply appreciative of those in the public who are chipping in by limiting yard work to evenings, reducing unnecessary idling of vehicles, and sharing rides wherever possible.”

Regions that do not meet EPA ozone standards may be designated as non-attainment.

Non-attainment status carries serious consequences that can result in more stringent permitting standards that can make it difficult for existing businesses to expand and new businesses to build facilities. Potential penalties also include the loss of federal highway funding and state-imposed actions, such as mandatory car inspections.

The Ozone Action Partnership — the first of its kind in the state of Tennessee — involves representatives from regional industry, government, academia and the medical community. The group was established in 2001 to come up with a voluntary plan that would help the region keep ozone levels down during the hot summer months. As a result, Ozone Action Days are now being forecast and publicized the day before ozone is likely to form.

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