A haze hangs over Kingsport during a recent hot afternoon. Sullivan County’s ‘ozone season’ usually ends in early September. Ned Jilton II photo.
KINGSPORT — Sullivan County’s ozone level exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standard last week. However, one local official said the county is still on track to come into compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone by the end of the year.
Between 1995 and 2006, the Tri-Cities region had nearly 300 violations of the ozone standard of 85 parts per billion (ppb), the level federal officials say impacts public health.
To avoid penalties, Sullivan County entered into an Early Action Compact with the EPA in order to give the county time to craft a plan to come into compliance with air quality standards. To help with this goal, the county created the Ozone Action Partnership (OAP) — a committee of representatives from industry, government, academia and the medical community charged with coming up with ways to help the region keep ozone levels down during the hot summer months.
The OAP issues alerts for Ozone Action Days — days when ozone is likely to be high and steps residents can take to reduce ozone levels.
The county has until the end of 2007 to meet attainment levels. The EPA will take the fourth-highest ozone reading each year for the past three years and average them together. If the number is 84 ppb or less, then the county would be in attainment.
According to Bill Sorah, chairman of the OAP, the county is on track to be in attainment at the end of the year.
“It would appear attainment is within our grasp. ... We’re cautiously optimistic,” Sorah said.
“We’ve had some pretty good years to average in with those to the point that if our fourth-highest reading at the Kingsport monitor was below 89 ppb, then we would be in attainment,” Sorah said. “Right now we’re in attainment.”
Sullivan County has two ozone monitors — one in Indian Springs and the other near Tri-Cities Regional Airport. On Aug. 24, the Indian Springs monitor had a reading of 85 ppb while the TCRA monitor had a reading of 90 ppb.
Sorah said the four highest readings at Indian Springs have been two 85s, a 98 and a 99; at the TCRA monitor the four highest readings have been two 91s and two 90s. Sorah said at the TCRA monitor, the fourth-highest day could be 93 ppb and the county would still be in attainment.
“We’ve had pretty good years in 2006 and 2005 to the point with the Kingsport monitor if our fourth-highest reading this season is below 89 ppb, which it is right now, we would be in attainment,” Sorah said.
Sorah said the county is nearing the end of its ozone season, so unless a significant excursion of 89 ppb or higher takes place, then the county would be in attainment at the end of the year. The ozone season in Sullivan County typically runs from late April to early September.
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.
Last week, Sorah noted the county has made a lot of effort to bring its air quality into compliance, including lowering the speed limits on Interstate 81 and Interstate 26 and implementing a burning ban on Ozone Action Days.
Considering that the EPA is exploring the idea of implementing more stringent air quality standards (70 to 75 ppb), Sorah said these efforts (the speed limit reduction and burning ban) would likely not go away.
“I think we’re in a situation where we are in such a marginal condition that I would not think it to be likely,” Sorah said. “What we see on the horizon is not a relaxation of those standards, but quite possibly an increased tightening as time moves forward.”