MORGANTOWN – The Morgantown-Fairmont Metropolitan Statistical Area ranks among the nation’s cleanest cities for ozone and short-term particle air pollution in American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air report.
Monongalia, Marion and Harrison counties were among the nation’s cleanest for short-term particle pollution (measured over 24-hour periods) while Monongalia was among the best for ozone pollution.
This was the second year in a row for the Morgantown-Fairmont MSA and Mon County to make those lists.
The EPA Air Quality Index identifies six ranges for pollution content:good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous. Being named cleanest means the cities and counties had no days of pollution categorized in the unhealthy level.
ALA has been issuing State of the Air reports since 2020 to help communities access local air quality data based on EPA criteria.
“Despite some nationwide progress on cleaning up air pollution,” the report says, “more than 40% of Americans – more than 135 million people – are living in places with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. … People of color are more than three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people.”
And while the Clean Air Act has led to reduced emissions from transportation, manufacturing and power plants, ozone and particle pollution spikes linked to higher temperatures and wildfires pose new challenges, the report says.
A lesson learned during the pandemic, the report says, is that elevated air pollution levels are tied to worse health outcomes for those with COVID-19.
ALA distinguishes ozone pollution, also known as ground-level ozone, from the ozone layer that protects the Earth from solar ultraviolet rays. It explains that ozone gas is a powerful lung irritant that can cause inflammation and other damage and can have short-term and long-term respiratory effects.
Particle pollution – tiny bits of solids and liquids – can come from factories, power plants, engine exhaust and other sources. Short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to increased infant mortality, hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease and COPD and for increased severity of asthma attacks.
Ala points out that some groups of people are more vulnerable to illness and death tied to pollution exposure: people of color, people living in poverty, children and older adults, and people with underlying health conditions including asthma, COPD, lung cancer and heart disease.
More regional information
While the Morgantown-Fairmont areas ranks among the best, the nearby Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton MSA ranks 16th (with 15 being even worse) among the nation’s 25 worst for short-term particle pollution and ninth among the 25 worst for year-round particle pollution.
Allegheny County, Pa., ranks 17th worst among the nation’s counties for year-round particle pollution.
Wheeling joins Morgantown-Fairmont as the only other West Virginia city on the short-term particle pollution clean city list.
Along with Mon, Berkeley, Gilmer, Greenbrier, Tucker and Wood are on the clean ozone counties list, along with neighboring Garrett County, Md., and Green County, Pa. Also on the best short-term particle pollution counties list are Cabell, Hancock, Kanawha, Marshall, Ohio, Wood, Garrett and Greene.
The Dominion Post talked with Kevin Stewart, ALA’s director of Environmental Health, about some of the report’s findings and suggestion.
Morgantown-Fairmont has a number of coal-fired power plants in its environs along with fracking operations, so some might be surprised the air is so clean. Stewart said that may be due in part to where the air quality monitors are placed.
The EPA sets the criteria in order to obtain a generalized picture. The specific air quality can vary from site to site, he said. The ALA relies on citizens to notify it if they think there are deficiencies or critical gaps in monitor placement.
The ALA calls for reducing air pollution by transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. That would be harder for coal- and gas-reliant West Virginia than some other states and Stewart said they recognize that different localities have different realities.
Since ALA began pushing for cleaner, low-carbon renewable sources, he said, ALA wants to be sure that there are always appropriate and robust measures in place to make sure that communities affected by those transitions are properly resourced to undergo the transition and not be left behind.
“We don’t believe in sacrificing a community to a clean energy future. we believe they have to be lifted up along with the rest of us. But at the same time we as a society and as a nation do need to confront the reality about what air pollution is causing in terms of health effects downwind, in terms of the effects on climate change and so on, and on disproportionally affected communities who suffer from air pollution.”
It is often said that even if the U.S. reaches zero-carbon emissions, places like China and India will keep dumping coal-fired emissions into the global atmosphere. Stewart said he likes to liken that to a group of people together in a boat full of holes; the boat will sink if the holes aren’t plugged.
Some people may be actively drilling more holes, he said, but you have holes in front of you and you have to ask what is your responsibility to try to keep to boat from sinking. You can do your best, show some leadership, perhaps develop some methods others might want to adopt.
At some point, “the whole boatload of people will realize that rather than a particular bad actor being one of the bunch, they’re going to be the outlier.” That puts you on the moral high ground.
“We have to deal with the issue, it’s not going to go away by wishing,” he said. “If we’re not doing our share it’s hard to get the other folks to do what they should.”
State of the Air 2021 can be found online at lung.org. You can see report cards for cities and counties across the country, see if air quality data is avialable or lacking for your local area, and see trend charts.
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