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Area air cleaner of ozone, says EPA

The designation is official in June as local officials tout their efforts. But one critic says more needs to be done.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published May 4, 2005


TAMPA - After 15 years of efforts to clean the air above Tampa Bay, federal regulators say ozone levels are acceptable in the skies over Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The new status becomes official in June, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already confirmed that test results show the air is less contaminated.

Officials tout the EPA ranking as vindication for years of reforms that reduced hydrocarbon pollutants posing health risks, especially for people with respiratory problems.

"This lets the citizens know that the air they're breathing is cleaner," said Reginald Sanford, a transportation planner with Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission.

The federal ozone seal of approval comes with a price tag.

Both counties received about $7-million from Washington for projects designed to reduce congestion and improve air quality every year. Because both counties will officially meet the ozone standard, that funding will stop by 2008.

Sanford and Peter Hessling, air quality division director for Pinellas County, said tougher emission standards, like the removal of sulfur from diesel fuel, deserved much of the credit for the lower ozone levels.

Tampa Electric Co.'s conversion of the coal burning Gannon plant outside the Port of Tampa to natural gas in 2003 and a $330-million antipollution project at the Big Bend plant at Apollo Beach that will be finished by 2010 also will help keep the air clean, they said.

Ozone forms when sunlight reacts with emissions from cars, power plants and other sources, like spray paint. Ozone is hard to breathe, and in the late 1980s, smog was so thick warnings were issued to cut back on driving.

The EPA, which has tested for ozone since 1979, placed Hillsborough and Pinellas counties two notches below the agency's acceptable level in 1990. Improving air quality became a mantra locally and statewide. The EPA also shifted how it tested for ozone. In 1990, it measured ozone over one hour. If monitors measured levels exceeding 120 parts per billion three days a year for three straight years, the community's air violated the standard.

This standard changed in 1997. Under the new rules, air quality failed if it exceeded 80 parts per billion. That would appear to make the standard tougher, but air quality was now measured over an eight-hour period, and levels were determined by averaging the fourth-highest ozone readings.

"If you average it out, of course air standards are going to be easier to meet," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. "Unfortunately, people still have to breathe in that air when ozone is at its peak, which is right around rush hour."

With the area continuing to grow in population, and in its dependence on the automobile, Newton didn't have much hope.

"We have no mass transit to speak of in this region," he said. "With all the cars that will be coming here in the future, breathe deep while you can. This won't last."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 269-5312 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 4, 2005, 00:56:08]


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