Air quality in the Smokies is finally less smoky

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Air quality has been a big problem in East Tennessee for decades, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Higher levels of pollution had gradually cut down on the scenic vistas at times, causing lawmakers and industry experts to respond with new rules and precautions.

One expert in particular has been studying the air quality for three decades, and according to him, things are finally turning around.

Jim Renfro, the park Air Quality Specialist, said just a couple of decades ago the visibility was so bad you couldn’t even see Gatlinburg from the mountains – or the mountains from Gatlinburg. The lack of view was a sign of a much bigger problem.

Jim Renfro
Jim Renfro

“Over the past 30 years, we’ve monitored well over 300 days where it’s unhealthy to breathe,” said Renfro. “That’s way too many.”

Renfro said the air was so polluted, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a lot of East Tennessee as non-attainment for ozone and particulate matter, basically meaning we had bad air. Renfro said tailpipe emissions coupled with everything TVA was pumping into the air from its power plants affected the air quality so much the area was violating federal health standards.

It was a wakeup call that sparked local and national programs to cut emission. Now, we’re finding out they worked.

Slideshow: Smoky Mountains Air Quality

smokiesslideshow

Renfro said fifteen years ago, visibility averaged just eight miles. Now, it’s up to forty-five, and the affect reaches much farther than the view.

“Ozone’s down about 40 percent. Particle pollution, that haziness, is down about 50 percent. Local emissions from TVA is down over 90 percent,” said Renfro, adding that TVA should be applauded for the massive improvements.

Much of East Tennessee, including the park, is still on that non-attainment list, but Renfro said levels are now measuring as complaint, and have been for a couple of years. He said East Tennessee groups have petitioned the EPA to look at our new air quality numbers and take us off the bad air list. He is expecting to hear the good news any day.

There is a catch: Renfro said the EPA is changing its air requirements this fall. That means even if East Tennessee gets off the bad air list this summer, some counties could get put right back on, depending on how tight the new standards are.

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