Region Forward Blog

Progress Versus Tiny Pollutants Shows Big Improvement in Region's Air Quality

Feb 19, 2013
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In 2005 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said our region was not meeting its fine particle (PM 2.5) pollution standards. This meant pollution levels were too high and that area leaders through COG’s Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee needed to devise a plan to clean the air.

Fast forward to 2013 and after a lot of hard work to reduce air pollution the District of Columbia Maryland and Virginia are formally asking the EPA to redesignate our region and affirm that we are in attainment of the fine particle standards. Starting this week the Maryland Department of the Environment Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the D.C. Department of Environment are holding public hearings on the region’s new draft fine particle plan and redesignation request. In addition to attending the hearings people can read the plan and submit their comments here.

So what are fine particles? And how were they reduced?

You can’t see fine particles—they are 1/30th the diameter of a human hair—a sum of microscopic pollutants. Despite their tiny size exposure to high levels causes respiratory symptoms like asthma and cardiovascular issues like irregular heartbeats. Fine particles are produced by combustion sources like coal fired power plants as well as vehicle emissions and natural sources.

Reductions in emissions from standard passenger cars and heavy duty diesel engine trucks have had a big impact on improving our air quality. Nowadays when new cars are built manufacturers are held to higher standards such as the National Low Emission Vehicle Program. And every time you take your vehicle to be inspected you see firsthand the advanced On Board Diagnostics that have greatly improved upon past tailpipe-only inspections.

Area power plants that have closed or reduced emissions

Area power plants that have closed or reduced emissions (Source: COG “Washington DC-MD-VA PM 2.5 Maintenance Plan Draft” 1/4/13)

While you may be aware of changes at your local power plant it is worth noting the many actions that have occurred across the entire region. In Fairfax County the Virginia Electric Power Company’s Possum Point Power Station switched from coal to natural gas in 2004 which has significantly reduced pollutants. In Maryland Mirant Mid-Atlantic agreed to cap emissions at plants in Dickerson in Montgomery County Chalk Point in Prince George’s County and Morgantown in Charles County as part of the Maryland Healthy Air Act. After at first agreeing to cap emissions at its Potomac River Generating Station Mirant (then GenOn) closed its coal-fired plant in Alexandria in 2012. In the same year Pepco closed its Benning Road Generating Station in D.C. which was powered by two large oil-fired turbines.

Officials will continue monitoring fine particles to make sure the region is maintaining the EPA standards. The region’s new maintenance plan explains future control strategies as well as how the air quality levels affect regional transportation planning.

Clean air is a key ingredient in the Region Forward vision for healthy vibrant and sustainable communities. As our baseline report reminded us there is still much work to do to meet our air quality target on ozone pollution. However the effort to bring down fine particle pollution shows significant progress is being made thanks to coordinated action by local state and federal leaders.

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