Energy Crunch To Make U.S. Summer More Hazy

Ron Scherer
The Christian Science Monitor
June 20, 2001

In Houston, Texas, earlier this month, even though cars vanished from the roads after tropical storm Allison, the city exceeded federal air- quality standards for ozone.

In the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., hot and hazy weather last week mixed with the noxious odor of gasoline and diesel fumes—to the point where the U.S. Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to post air-quality warnings from Washington to New Jersey.

As summer officially arrives, smog is hanging over many cities like a pot lid, portending a potentially bad summer for air quality in the United States.

While any smog season depends heavily on the vagaries of the weather, the need to ramp up power generation in some states, coupled with unusual problems in other areas, is leading to concerns that a decade of clean-air improvements could be stalled.

Already, the country is off to a disturbing start: 25 states—an unusually high number—have had at least one day when their air quality did not meet federal standards. And, if the weather turns hot, the number of "orange" and "red" alerts—when people with health problems are cautioned to stay inside—could rise substantially.

"I am concerned we are going to have a very bad summer of smog," said Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust, an environmental group in Washington.

Although air-quality improvements have come thanks to cleaner automobiles, the nation's smog problem may get worse in some areas in particular this summer because of the demand for more kilowatts.

As the temperature rises, Americans crank up their air conditioners. With electric supplies tight, utilities are turning to older, dirtier power plants that burn fuel oil or coal. Just last week, California Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, relaxed the rules on pollution from the state's natural-gas plants.

And some parts of the country, such as Houston, the nation's smoggiest city, are struggling with air-quality problems because of their lack of public transportation. Houston also has a heavy concentration of refining and petrochemical companies.

In a recent report, the American Lung Association found that high levels of ozone continue to be a national problem. Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, it estimated that an additional 9 million people breathed dirty air in the past three years. "The overwhelming message is that air pollution is far from solved," said Paul Billings, spokesman for the ALA.

Ingredients of Smog Soup

Smog is produced with the right mix of sunlight, stagnant air, chemical pollutants, and hot temperatures. Medical officials blame smog for respiratory ills. A recent report linked the fine particles found in smog to heart attacks.

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