WASHINGTON- The nation had a significant increase in smog last year, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures obtained by Knight Ridder.
The number of times the air was smoggy enough to violate federal health standards soared 32 percent from 2001 to 2002, up for the second straight year. The smog standard was exceeded 700 times last year - up from 532 in 2001 and 516 in 2000.
Smog was even worse last year if measured by the EPA's new smog standard, which was first proposed in 1997 but delayed in court. It will be put into effect in April 2004.
Using those tougher standards, revised in light of research showing health threats from persistent smog, violations increased 61 percent from 2001 to 2002.
Not only were there more smoggy days, but the worst days in 2002 were also smoggier than the worst days of 2001. The national average worst-day smog level jumped 9 percent in 2002 from the year before but was down slightly from 2000.
The two straight years of smog increases follow large but not steady declines in smog since the 1970s. Overall, the air is much cleaner now than 20 years ago, but experts say they are worried by the recent smog increase.
"What we've seen over the last several years on a nationwide basis is that [smog levels] go up and down based on weather patterns," said Jeff Clark, EPA's director of policy analysis for air quality. "One year does not a trend make."
Although the hot, stagnant weather of the past two years is a major contributing factor, experts said, the increased smog is also caused in large part by pollution from power plants.
"It underscores the fact that we have and will continue to have a pervasive air pollution problem in this country," said Bill Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators. "What it points to is the urgency in cracking down on power plant emissions and other sources that are contributing significantly to the problem, such as large diesel engines."
Smog - technically ozone - is made when nitrogen oxides combine with volatile organic chemicals. Nitrogen oxides come from cars, trucks and power plants, according to the EPA. But Clinton-era rules are forcing new cars to be cleaner.
"The automobile contribution is definitely declining," so the main cause of the problem is shifting to utilities, said Rudolf Husar, an engineering professor and director of the Center for Air Pollution Impact and Trend Analysis at Washington University in St. Louis. "Cars are getting cleaner; the power plants are not."
That's not so, said John Kinsman, air quality director for the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry lobby. He said nitrogen oxides from power plants have dropped 14 percent between 1999 and 2001 and, once new rules go into effect next year, they will be 40 percent lower than 1980 levels.
"We feel we're doing quite a bit in reducing [nitrogen oxides] and ozone levels," Kinsman said.
The Bush administration has eased regulations on older coal-fired power plants whose owners want to expand or refurbish them without costly new pollution controls. Nine northeastern states are suing the EPA to stop the rule change, which industry cheers for giving utilities an incentive to adopt cleaner technology.
In addition, the Bush administration is pushing its year-old Clear Skies Initiative, which puts a shrinking cap on power plant pollution but lets utilities trade right-to-pollute credits. The EPA said the plan would reduce national nitrogen oxide pollution 58 percent by 2008 and two-thirds by 2018. Environmentalists say deeper pollution cuts would be gained simply by enforcing existing air pollution laws.
"You'd have to point to [increased smog violations] as a wake-up call to the Bush administration that they need to get serious about air pollution," said National Audubon Society Vice President Bob Perciasepe, who was the EPA's air quality chief during the Clinton administration.
Twelve states - California, Ohio, North Carolina, New Jersey, Georgia, Indiana, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine - experienced a sharp increase of at least 10 smog violations last year over 2001.
Maryland violated smog standards 35 days in 2002, 22 days in 2001 and 13 days in 2000.
Thirteen places - Pennsylvania, Missouri, Delaware, New Hampshire, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, Vermont, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and the District of Columbia - had fewer than 10 increases in smog violations.
Only Texas saw smog violations decline by at least 10. Texas had 142 violations in 2000, 81 in 2001 and 52 last year.
Six states - Florida, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Alabama and Utah - had modest decreases in smog violations.
The other 19 states recorded no violations.