The News Journal | by Molly Murray
The Wilmington-Philadelphia area ranks second in the Northeast for days with elevated ozone pollution and soot from smokestacks, and vehicle tailpipes are a problem more than half of the time, according to a new study released Thursday by Environment America Research & Policy Center.
The study used 2015 data collected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. States submit air quality monitoring data to the federal agency and the EPA compiles the state results into a nationwide database of outdoor air quality.
Wilmington is grouped into a metropolitan area that includes Philadelphia, Camden, New Jersey; Sussex County is combined with an area that includes Salisbury, Maryland. The Wilmington-area had 97 high ozone days. Salisbury-Sussex had 49 and Dover, 40, according to the report.
“Even one day with unhealthy levels of air pollution is unacceptable,” said Lindsey Mendelson, Environment America Climate Associate. “We need to be strengthening our clean air laws, not rolling them back.”
The report focuses on ozone and soot — two components of air pollution that have been linked to health problems such as asthma.
Mendelson noted that the report release follows a Trump administration executive order last week to review the Clean Power Plan that set limits on carbon pollution.
The conservative, Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute, in a 2015 study, concluded residential power bills would increase almost $270 a year, and some large industrial customers will see an increase of over $3 million a year under the Clean Power Plan.
David Stevenson, director of the institute’s Center for Energy Competitiveness challenged the report findings.
“In New Castle County, in 2015, air quality was marginally over the national standard less than 3% of the time,” Stevenson said. The standards are set 20% below actual safe levels to leave some margin of safety, so there was only one day in all of 2015 when air quality was marginally above safe levels. Air quality in the rest of the state was even better. We do not have an air quality problem in Delaware!”
The report numbers are drawn from the larger metropolitan region for both New Castle and Sussex counties.
“The primary precursor for high ozone levels on the occasional summer day is nitrous oxide from burning fuels,” Stevenson said. “Contrary to the frequently stated, erroneous charge the leading source of nitrous oxide in Delaware is out-of-state power plants, the prime source is local motor vehicle exhaust. EPA ambient air quality model runs in 2012 prove power plants in other states only contributed 7% of our ozone pollution, and those plants are even cleaner today.”
Still, some in Delaware worry about the findings in the Environment America report.
“It appears the current administration in Washington is intent on resurrecting the failed policies that have allowed companies to disregard and ignore any responsibility they might have to protect our environment and the health of our citizens,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D- Newark. “Moving forward to a goal of zero emissions and a healthy environment are the responsibilities and obligations we must accept unconditionally.”
Ozone forms on warm sunny days and is made worse from the chemicals that come out of vehicle tailpipes and from power plant and industrial smoke stacks. Delaware gets a dose of homegrown ozone and particulates and because of prevailing winds, an additional influx from beyond state lines.
State environmental spokesman Michael Globetti said agency officials haven’t seen the report and couldn’t comment on specifics.
“We have done significant work to reduce in-state air pollution but the biggest problem facing Delaware is pollution from sources in upwind states. We have filed four petitions with the EPA against specific power plants located outside of Delaware that adversely impact our air quality,” Globetti said in an e-mail. “EPA has failed to act on our petitions as required by the Clean Air Act and we are now litigating their inaction. We look to strong federal leadership to help Delaware solve our air quality problems that are caused for the most part by other states.”
Mendelson said there has been a reduction in ozone pollution over the last 40 years but there are still health and environmental concerns and additional reductions are needed.
“We know that future weather in Delaware will be warmer in all seasons, especially in the summer, when heat waves will be more frequent, more intense, and last longer due to climate change,” said Cristina Archer, an associate professor at the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment with specialties in meteorology and climate change. “Ozone levels already exceed national air quality standards in Delaware and will exacerbate with rising temperatures. Many proposed actions by the current administration, like rolling back the Clean Power Plan or expanding coal burning, are threats to people’s health.”
Air pollution can be at its worst for people who live or work near busy highways or in industrial areas, Mendelson said.
“For decades, Wilmington has faced challenges around air pollution. Due to our neighborhoods being surrounded by industrial companies and contaminated brownfields, it has heightened the pollution levels within our communities that our families breathe in every day,” said Wilmington Councilwoman Rysheema Dixon. “We do have state and city agencies working to cut down on the pollution emissions in our neighborhoods. We do have high rates of asthma and cancer. It’s imperative that we work together to eliminate the challenges around air pollution and it’s health effects.”