York-area air ranks among worst in country

Katherine Ranzenberger

The air in the Harrisburg, York and Lebanon metropolitan area is among the worst in the nation, according to the American Lung Association's most recent "State of the Air" report.

The area — made up of York, Lebanon, Dauphin, Perry, Adams and Cumberland counties — ranks 18th on the list of 25 U.S. cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution, according to the findings released Wednesday The area also ranks ninth in the nation for the 25 U.S. cities most polluted by year-round particle pollution.

Diesel trucks are one source of small-particle pollution, which tends to gather overnight and creates a foggy-looking haze that settles in areas. Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com

"This is basically the nation's air pollution report card," said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. "The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has sensors around southcentral Pennsylvania to measure the pollutants. We gather this data and then we assign grades based on how the area does."

The release of the report comes just in time for National Air Quality Awareness Week, which runs from Monday, May 2, through Friday, May 6.

Methodology: The report is based on a three-year average, Stewart said. The most recent report comes from data collected from 2012 to 2014. After analyzing the data, the Lung Association gives the areas a letter grade.

"If you have no days of high ozone in the last three years, then you get an A," Stewart said. "If you have no days of high particle pollution, you also get an A. If you have one bad day, that bumps you into the B range."

The national report breaks down pollutants into two categories: ground-level ozone, also known as smog, and small-particle pollutants. Ozone tends to collect during the day and is more prevalent as the sun sets, Stewart said. Small-particle pollution tends to gather overnight and creates a foggy-looking haze that settles in areas. These pollutants include microscopic dust from coal-burning power plants and diesel trucks, among other things.

"Our natural defenses help us to cough or sneeze larger particles out of our bodies," according to the report. "But those defenses don’t keep out smaller particles, those that are smaller than 10 microns (or micrometers) in diameter, or about one-seventh the diameter of a single human hair. These particles get trapped in the lungs, while the smallest are so minute that they can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, just like the essential oxygen molecules we need to survive."

Pollution days are separated into multiple categories as well, including orange days, which affect sensitive groups; red days, which are unhealthy levels for everyone; and purple groups, which are very unhealthy for people.

From 2012 to 2014, York County had 15 orange level days and one red level day for ozone levels. There were no recorded purple days. This averages out to 5.5 days each year with high ozone levels, according to the report, giving this area an F.

For particle pollution, there were four days in the orange and none in the red and purple categories. This averages out to 1.3 days with high particle pollution, giving the area a C.

Causes: Stewart said York County alone does produce its own amount of pollution. However, it's lumped together with other areas to make a bigger metropolitan area for the report.

In August 2015, the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, released a comprehensive report detailing Brunner Island Power Plant's contributions to smog as they relate to nitrogen oxide emissions.

Brunner Island, York County's only coal-burning power plant, was the third-largest source of nitrogen oxide in the state, according to the report.

The two plants that generated more — Keystone Generating Station in Armstrong County and Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence, Westmoreland County — are both equipped with controls that can reduce nitrogen oxide emissions up to 90 percent, but the controls were not operating regularly or effectively, according to the report. Brunner Island is the only large coal-burning power plant in Pennsylvania without the reduction controls or any other controls for nitrogen oxide pollution.

Talen Energy, which owns Brunner Island, announced a $100 million project in 2015 to turn the plant into a co-fire plant, allowing it to burn natural gas, coal or both. Talen has pointed out in the past that Brunner Island is in compliance with all applicable state and federal regulations.

The trucking industry in this area can also lead to more pollution, Stewart said.

Worse than York: Multiple areas in Pennsylvania joined York on the list of the 25 U.S. cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution. Lancaster came in 11, followed by the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area at No. 13. Philadelphia, Reading and Camden are tied with the Harrisburg, York and Lebanon area.

Some of these areas also joined York on the list of 25 U.S. cities most polluted by year-round particle pollution. These include the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area at No. 8, the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden area at 12 and Lancaster at No. 16.

Lancaster is joined by the Johnstown-Somerset area at No. 16. Altoona made the list at No. 14, and the Erie-Meadville area came in lowest at No. 21.

Improvement: All hope isn't lost, though, Stewart said. The numbers are getting better.

"We do know there's been improvement over time, but there's still too many bad days for ozone," Stewart said. "We want people to understand air quality is being looked at. We want people to be aware of the air quality, too."

Deborah Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said these levels of ozone and pollutants are putting people at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm.

“Across the nation, the report found continued improvement in air quality, but more than half of the people in the United States live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution," Brown said in a news release.

To see the full report, click here.

— Reach Katherine Ranzenberger at kranzenberger@yorkdispatch.com.