Meeting state requirements a cooperative effort between industry, regulators
The air we breathe is as important to life as water, food, and shelter. Humans need quality air to live well.
The mission of the Division of Air Quality in the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection is to make every effort to ensure the citizens of the Commonwealth have the best air possible, while also focusing on our economic and energy interests.
“With the exception of the sulfur dioxide monitor in Louisville, the air quality in Kentucky
meets health-based standards set at the federal level,” said Sean Alteri, the director of the Division of Air Quality.
As federal Environmental Protection Agency standards require Kentucky’s air to be better, the division must work with business and industry to make sure standards are met, and help those who are not meeting standards to get in compliance.
Kentucky’s air is clean, with low levels of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, fine particles and ozone. Those pollutants, if breathed in great enough concentrations, can cause respiratory problems.
“Those pollutants must be controlled, because they do have a detrimental effect on health,” Alteri said.
And it’s the division’s job to ensure the air we breathe, the air we all have to share, is safe, clean and meets air quality standards set by the federal government to keep the public safe.
It’s a job Alteri said we’ve done well.
“The air quality in Kentucky has improved greatly over the last few decades, but particularly over the last ten years,” Alteri said. “Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide numbers have been greatly reduced. Air monitoring data show that overall air quality in Kentucky is healthy.”
The Clean Air Act
The federal Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970, and with it came sweeping changes, environmental controls and laws to clean the air and environment.
“It’s a cooperative effort. A lot of the significant improvements are a result of federal programs. However the state implements and enforces those programs,” Alteri said.
The Clean Air Act established health-based limits on the most common air pollutants: lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and ozone. Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has reduced these key pollutants by more than 60 percent. Airborne lead has dropped 92 percent since 1980.
At the same time the air was getting cleaner, Kentucky was seeing economic development and population growth over the course of the last four decades. The improved air quality we see today is significant considering that economic and population growth typically result in additional pollution sources from expanded industry, more traffic, and greater
energy demand. Yet as the economy has more than tripled, air quality has continued to improve – indications that when done reasonably and appropriately, environmental protection and economic development don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Technology advances help meet stricter standards
Kentucky’s air didn’t get cleaner just because the government said it should. Technological innovation combined with appropriate regulatory implementation have concurrently played major roles in helping meet ever-stricter emissions regulations, despite rising demands for products and services.
“Air pollution control technologies have greatly advanced in recent decades. We have more bag houses, we have wet scrubbers, we have dry scrubbers, and all of those technologies are reducing our air emissions and improving our air quality,” Alteri said.
When a coal-fired power plant near Lexington invested millions of dollars in scrubbers, Alteri noted, the results were immediate.
“There has been a great improvement,” Alteri said. “The sulfur dioxide emissions from that power plant were reduced by more than 96 percent almost immediately.”
And the Department works with businesses and industries to help them comply with regulations and find technological and process-based solutions to help them meet the standard and be a good neighbor.
“Balancing economic growth and development with environmental protection, that is one of the obligations of a state agency under the Clean Air Act. As an approved permitting program for construction of major projects, Kentucky has always found that balance,” Alteri said. “We want to ensure that projects apply the best available control technologies to achieve those emission reductions.”
Technology. Awareness. Higher standards. Enforcement. All of those factors over the last forty-plus years bring us to the air we breathe today.
The air in Kentucky is good. “But there’s more work to be done,” Alteri said.
And that’s where the Division of Air Quality scorecard comes into play.
The four pollutants that cause most respiratory issues (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, fine particles and ozone) are the focus of the division’s air quality scorecard, compiled over a three-year period to show Kentucky’s current air conditions.
The scorecard measures the air quality in nine regions across the state against the federal standards for a particular pollutant.
Through a cooperative effort with industry, regulators, government and citizens, the air has improved in Kentucky so much that only one area is currently not in compliance with existing federal standards.
And emission of air pollutants is not restricted to industry and energy generation.
Every day, people generate air pollution. Every turn of a car key or pull of a lawnmower starter puts emissions into the air.
And it’s an area where conscious choices can be made to keep our personal environmental impacts to a minimum.
“Whether you’re an industry or a homeowner, you want to be a good neighbor,” Alteri said. “Whether it’s driving extra trips to the grocery and creating pollution through your car or whether it’s burning plastic that travels over to your neighbor’s yard, we all need to be aware that our decisions matter and you should do your best to be a good neighbor.”
If the last forty years is any indication, it takes innovation, better technology, and cooperation by regulatory agencies to make our air cleaner, safer, and better for everyone. The formula won’t likely change going forward.
And the imminent future holds additional challenges. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently in the process of finalizing more stringent air-quality requirements for ozone and greenhouse gas emissions; topics that have generated substantial discussion ranging from the White House and Congress to individual social gatherings.
But once the new standards are in place, whatever they may be and whenever they’re enacted, Kentucky will continue to work with elected officials, business, industry, and citizens in determining the best methods available to make our air and our economy the best it can be.