From The Charleston Gazette    June 30, 2004

15 W.Va. counties violate air particle rules

    By Ken Ward Jr.
    Staff Writer

Nearly one-half of all West Virginians live in counties where the air contains unhealthy amounts of small-particle pollution, according to new federal government designations released Tuesday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that 15 West Virginia counties violate a new limit on fine particles.

Kanawha and Putnam counties were both listed as violating the limit.

EPA included the counties on a preliminary list of 243 counties nationwide with a total population of 99 million that do not meet the new standard.

The announcement by EPA only verifies what folks in coal country have known for years, said Wendy Radcliff, a Charleston lawyer who works on air pollution issues for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. West Virginians have been suffering the effects of fine particulate for generations.

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of particulate matter, and would be a likely target for any local emissions reductions.

After EPA finalizes the list later this year, the state Department of Environmental Protection will have until February 2008 to come up with a plan to bring non-attainment areas into compliance.

Such plans could require additional pollution cuts by existing industry, and force much tighter permit limits on any new businesses.

Road construction can also be hampered in non-attainment areas. Additional traffic and higher speeds cause more pollution, and regulators would need to budget for that in their plans to bring the areas into compliance.

David Flannery, a lawyer for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said that the non-attainment listings, if finalized, kick in controls designed to slow down, if not stop, economic growth.

In effect, that's putting up a sign that says, No economic growth, Flannery said.

Since 1997, EPA has tried to tighten its particulate matter rules in response to new studies that linked existing pollution levels to increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits and premature deaths.

Industry groups and some states, including West Virginia, fought the rules all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In February 2001, the court upheld EPA's authority to set air quality standards that protect the public from the harmful effects of air pollution.

Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets.

Particles small enough to sneak past body's defenses

The new EPA rule deals with very tiny particles, those that are 2.5 microns in diameter. A micron is one millionth of a meter, and a 2.5-micron particle would be about 1/30 the diameter of a human hair.

These particles are so small that they sneak past the body's natural defenses, and bury themselves deep in the lungs. Both long- and short-term exposure to such particles has been shown to cause serious health problems, especially among children and the elderly.

Fine particles come from all kinds of combustion, including power plants, motor vehicles, residential wood burning and some industrial processes.

In Tuesdays announcement, other counties listed in West Virginia included Berkeley, Brooke, Cabell, Hancock, Jefferson, Marion, Marshall, Ohio and Wayne.

Also, EPA added four other counties that the Wise administration had not recommended as being in non-attainment status.

They were Mason, Monongalia, Harrison and Pleasants.

In all, nearly 877,000 people live in the 15 counties named by EPA, according to the U.S. Census Bureaus 2000 figures.

State blindsided by federal decision, DEP official says

The addition of Monongalia County to the EPA list could become particularly controversial, as state regulators defend their approval of a permit for a new coal-fired power plant near Morgantown.

In a letter to the state, EPA regional administrator Donald Welsh said his agency added counties that are adjacent to counties with a violating monitor, that are generally rural in character, and that contain an identifiable large emitting facility or facilities (e.g., power plants) we believe contribute to the nearby non-attainment problem.

Mason County, for example, is home to a power plant that EPA believes contributes to pollution problems in Putnam County. Mason County does not have a particulate matter monitor, so officials don't have good data on its air quality.

John Benedict, director of the DEP Division of Air Quality, said the state was blindsided by EPA's decision to list counties it believes contribute to nearby non-attainment problems.

We haven't had sufficient time to thoroughly review and counter this

yet, Benedict said. It seems like they have taken a very simplistic approach.

In April 2003, EPA explained to states how it planned to decide which counties to list as not meeting the particulate standard.

At the time, EPA noted the Clean Air Act states that non-attainment areas shall include any area that does not meet (or that contributes to ambient air quality in a nearby area that does not meet) the national air quality standards.

Benedict responded, They've quoted a section of the act, but they never used it before.

Flannery said the industry groups and companies he represents question whether EPA has enough proof that the four additional West Virginia counties contribute to pollution in adjacent counties.

Flannery said he especially questioned the addition of Monongalia and Harrison counties, both of which have monitors that show them in compliance with particulate matter limits.

To say these counties are in non-attainment makes neither scientific nor legal sense, Flannery said. The whole thing is really bizarre.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.