Air quality in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is still among the worst out of all national parks in the United States, but the quality is improving, according to two national park officials that spoke at Wednesday’s clean air conference.
“The bad news is that we’re at non-attainment,” said Jim Renfro, chief of the air quality branch at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
An area is at non-attainment when its environmental quality proves worse than the public health standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. A non-attainment area faces consequences such as highway funding cuts and greater difficulty in obtaining industry permits.
“The good news is we’re getting better,” Renfro said.
Although the Great Smoky Mountains still have the highest sulfate acid rain levels in the nation, sulfate content has decreased 50 percent since 1980. As a result the rains have also become less acidic.
The sulfates also account for 83 percent of the regional haze in the mountains, Renfro said. Tennessee accounts for 45 percent of the sulfate content in the air. The Great Smokies have an average summer visibility between 11 and 15 miles, the worst in the nation. Natural summer visibility is 77 miles, according to the EPA, and the goal of the park officials is to reach the point of natural summer visibility by the year 2064.
“At 77 miles, we’d love to have the Great Smoky Mountains look this way whenever we visit,” said Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the air quality branch of the national park.
‘No silver bullet’
Cleaning Tennessee’s air is important to health as well as the environment itself, said Betsy Child, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Child said that “no silver bullet” existed for cleaning the environment, but certain actions such as development of new cleaner diesel engines and the development of cleaner fuels such as biodiesel. Vehicle inspection and maintenance and speed limit reductions are also steps taken to reducing air pollution.
A fitting name
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., addressed the conference by video at the start of the event.
The senator commented on the pollution in East Tennessee, noting that Wednesday’s event was an “urgently important conference for our region.”
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, followed Alexander, also via video.
“I know many good recommendations and suggestions will come out of this conference today,” Duncan said.
He noted that “Cleaning America’s Air — Progress and Challenges” is a fitting name for the event since our air is getting cleaner, but we must have a national resolve to do even more.
‘Necessary’ improvements
Paul Gilman, founding director of the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies, was the morning’s first speaker. In Knoxville, additional work is necessary in order to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards, Gilman said.
According to the EPA, emissions of the six principal air pollutants are down 25 percent nationally from 30 years ago, but much more can be done, Gilman said.
Gilman also mentioned the public health benefits of regulatory actions, noting that $320 billion would be saved in healthcare costs by reducing emissions.
A ‘Vigorous debate’
In the afternoon, Bill Baxter, director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the air quality in Tennessee is getting better, even though the public believes it is getting worse.
TVA, for example, has reduced its emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from coal-fired plants by about 80 percent since the 1970s, Baxter said. And TVA has reduced its emissions of particulate matter — particles that are 2.5 micrometers or less — by 99 percent since then, he said.
The jury is still out on whether humans are causing global change, Baxter added.
“There is vigorous debate on this,” Baxter said.
— News editor Gabriel Garcia, senior writer John Huotari and staff writer Shalini Shantharaju contributed to this report.