How Smokies air quality has changed in park’s 75 years

6 News Anchor/Reporter

TOWNSEND (WATE) — Through the past 75 years, one of the biggest changes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park park has been air quality.

Fifty years ago, visibility from some of the highest points was usually around 80 miles.

Now, on a typical summer day, it's closer to just 10 or 15 miles.


To make matters worse, most of the pollution doesn't originate in the Smokies, but the park service has managed to find a way to fight back.

Air quality specialist Jim Renfro helps keep track of weather conditions, visibility and pollution in the park. 

6 News caught up with Renfro at the park's air quality station at Look Rock. It was built by the state, TVA and the park service in the 1980s.

“In the 80s and 90s, air pollution levels in the park were too high and they were actually getting worse. Probably 90 percent of the SO2 (sulfur dioxide) comes from large stationary sources, the large power plants and industrial boilers, the big smoke stacks,” Renfro says.

Even through the haze, you can see the smoke stack at TVA's Bull Run Fossil Plant from Look Rock. But Renfro's quick to point out that TVA and others have made huge strides in improvements.

“TVA has to be credited and applauded for ongoing efforts to put on best equipment on nearby power plants,” Renfro says. 

The data collected at Look Rock, and the other monitoring stations in the park, helps drive education and new standards.

While you may hear about more air quality alert days in East Tennessee, it's only because those standards have gotten more stringent, not because air quality is declining. In fact, in the past 10 years we've seen consistent air quality improvements. 

Still there are some concerns that increased traffic in the Smokies is behind our hazy days, but Renfro insists that's just not the case.

“The amount of emissions generated in the park is small, relative to the pollution that effects the park. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the pollution that effects the park is generated outside the park,” Renfro says.

He also says emissions and other pollutants tend to get trapped in the valley between the Cumberland Plateau and the mountains.

Plus, Renfro says cleaner fuels and cars are helping and he reminds us that we can all do our part by conserving energy.

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