Smog ruling for Knox, Blount could hit economic development, officials say

By Michael Collins, Bob Fowler

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


The Environmental Protection Agency has found Knox and Blount counties and part of Anderson County in violation of federal smog regulations primarily because they contribute to air pollution in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The EPA's nonattainment label could hamper future economic development, officials said Wednesday.

Bob Martineau, the state's commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation, called the EPA's decision disappointing and said the state has been working hard to improve air quality.

"Current monitoring indicates Tennessee's air is cleaner than it has been in decades," Martineau said.

The director of Air Quality Management for Knox County said the ruling frustrated her. "There's nothing for us to do," Lynne Liddington said. "We're already meeting the standard. That's the interesting part of this."

Officials said only one of 18 air quality monitors across the state showed ground-level ozone or smog levels higher than allowed, and that by only a small amount.

Jim Renfro, air quality specialist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the Look Rock monitor had an average ozone reading of 77 parts per billion over three years, while the EPA cutoff for air quality standards is 75 ppb.

Renfro said all of the state's air quality monitors showed three-year averages hovering near the EPA cutoff.

When 2009 a year that featured remarkably little smog pollution isn't included, all of the state's monitors would likely exceed EPA guidelines, he said.

The nonattainment designation, which can only be lifted after three years of air quality compliance, could hamstring economic development, Liddington and Anderson County's industrial recruiter said.

"If there's an industry coming in that's going to significantly add to Knox County emissions, we won't be able to permit them," Liddington said.

"A lot of times, industries seeking new locations will not consider nonattainment areas," said Tim Thompson, president of Anderson County Economic Development Association. "They'll kick you off the list immediately," he said.

Liddington said air quality monitors in both Knox and Anderson counties "show we are attaining the ozone standard," she said.

But those counties are labeled as being in nonattainment, she said, because they are considered contributors to the high smog reading in the Smokies in Blount County.

The EPA at first wanted to include Loudon and Seiver counties and part of Cocke County as nonattainment areas, according to TDEC.

The EPA later backed off adding those counties, TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said.

The area around TVA's Bull Run Fossil Plant in Anderson County is in the nonattainment area, as are Shelby County and Memphis.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the EPA continues to include power plants in nonattainment areas because of the potential size of their emissions. But she said the Bull Run plant has lowered its ozone-forming emissions by 95 percent.

In 2004, Knox and 12 other Tennessee counties were listed in nonattainment to what were then less stringent EPA standards. Those designations were later lifted after steps were taken to improve air quality.

Renfro, the park's air quality specialist, said smog levels in the park have dropped 27 percent since 1997.

Smog is formed when warm weather and sunlight cause nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds to combine, Renfro said.

Members of the state's congressional delegation were not surprised Tennessee counties ended up on the nonattainment list.

"The EPA's announcement is exactly the reason I have sponsored and voted for laws to stop dirty air from blowing into Tennessee from other states, which jeopardizes our health and our ability to attract new jobs," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Alexander and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., are pushing legislation that would give the EPA the authority it needs to keep dangerous emissions of sulfur dioxide (soot) and nitrous oxide (smog) from blowing in from power plants from neighboring states, while giving utilities time to comply with the new requirements.

U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, called the EPA's decision on the Tennessee counties "an unfortunate ruling, but one that is not surprising."

Duncan and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, sent a joint letter to the EPA last month pointing out that an outside analysis by environmental consultants concluded that the Tennessee counties should be found in attainment.