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Air Quality Still Causes Concern

Environmentalists' court victory imposes stricter measures for region.

JULY 24 -- On June 25 and July 2 of this year, the phones in Dr. Sunil Kapoor's pediatric office were ringing off the hook.

Parents of asthmatic children called the pediatric pulmonary specialist at Inova Fairfax to say that their children were suffering from coughing, wheezing, and itchy, burning eyes.

Those two days saw unusually high levels of air pollution, levels so high the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments classified them as "Code Purple" days indicating "very unhealthy" air.

Despite these incidents, however, Kapoor said that summer was generally a good time in terms of asthma attacks, "with the exception of the isolated days when the air quality is terrible."

He added that while air quality is certainly a factor in the nationwide trend of increased child asthma attacks, "the explanations for it are not 100-percent clear."

<b>THE TWO CODE PURPLE</b> days the region suffered in the past two weeks were the worst since 1994, according to Dan Salkovitz, a meteorologist and environmental specialist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

"It has been rare to have readings that high in the D.C. area," he said. "At this point it's too early to really determine exactly why we had those high readings."

The Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Northern Virginia, is still experiencing air-pollution levels higher than the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1990 Clean Air Act. Although the region has been making progress, according to Salkovitz, much of the pollution in the area comes from old, dirty power plants in the Ohio Valley.

If the Washington region does not reach EPA standards by 2005, federal funding for transportation could be cut.

Air monitors in Northern Virginia have been showing that air quality in Northern Virginia is within the EPA standards; but because the area is lumped in with the whole Washington metropolitan area, it might suffer the same consequences as local jurisdictions with much higher air-pollution levels.

Salkovitz said Maryland jurisdictions routinely record the highest level of air pollution because the wind brings emission to the Maryland counties, not only from the Ohio Valley but also from the Baltimore area.

"Maryland gets a double whammy," he said.

,b>POLLUTION FROM OLDER</b> power plants could make it nearly impossible to clean up the air quality, according to some environmental activists, especially since those plants will now be allowed to expand without meeting current pollution-control standards.

Mark Wenzler, of the Washington D.C.-based National Environmental Trust, said that the Bush administration's changes to the New Source Review will have a damaging effect on the region’s air-quality efforts.

On June 13, President George W. Bush unveiled a plan that would exempt older power plants from modern pollution-control measures in their expansion projects. Under EPA guidelines, all new power-plant construction and expansion had to use up-to-date pollution-control technology.

According to Wenzler, the administration's plan will make it impossible for the Washington region to meet the EPA's 2005 deadline because of the increased emissions from Midwestern power plants.

"Most of the plants in the Ohio Valley, in West Virginia, will be less likely to have to clean up, and that will make it harder for us to meet our clean-air goals," he said. "We're definitely stuck."

The administration's plan to relax pollution standards for power plants will not come up for a congressional vote. The only way Congress could express itself on the matter is through the appropriations process, said Wenzler.

Both Rep. Thomas Davis (R-11th) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) voted against a 2001 bill that would require better fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks. Rep. James Moran (D-8th) voted in favor of the bill.

<b>ALTHOUGH THE REGION'S</b> air-pollution problems are slowly getting better, local leaders will have to resort to much stricter measures to reduce emissions, according to a July 2 ruling by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

The ruling came after environmental groups Earthjustice and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit arguing that the Washington area should be reclassified from "serious" to "severe" in terms of air pollution.

A "severe" classification means that the region must reduce ozone emissions by 3 percent annually, according to Melanie Mayock, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club's Mid-Atlantic Chapter in Arlington.

"There has been a general trend downward in air pollution, but we're nowhere near where we need to be," she said.

Mayock added that land-use changes were necessary to fight ozone emissions.

"As long as we're driving more miles, we're going to have problems with air quality," Mayock said, adding that more funds should be allocated to public transit, pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

"Sprawl is particularly important," she said.

<b>NOT EVERYONE</b> believes the situation is dire.

Robert Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said that those who want land-use changes are not really interested in public health and fewer emissions.

"It has to do with controlling people: how they travel, where they live," he said. "The agenda really isn't public health."

Because air quality is primarily a public-health issue, he said, money for pollution control should not come out of transportation funds. "Transportation funds should be spent on something that improves transportation," he said.

Technological innovations in cars will result in fewer automobile emissions, which will allow the region to reach its 2005 deadline without halting much-needed road improvements, he said.

"You don't stop building the transportation you need for the next 20 to 25 years because of a short-term problem in air quality," he said. "The long-term outlook is very good in terms of improving air quality."