The air up there -- and down here

Study: Dangerous form of air pollution comes from — gasp! — power plants

A recently released Georgia Tech study implicates Georgia Power’s local power plants in the contribution of what’s widely considered to be the more dangerous form of air pollution.

That air pollution is called particulate matter, a hodgepodge of different chemical compounds. It’s called particulate matter because the pollution is made up of incredibly fine particles that are small enough to slip through filters in lung tissue and be absorbed into the bloodstream. There, the particles can poison the blood and damage the heart.

Unlike ground-level ozone smog, which has been studied ad nauseum for decades, particulate matter is a fairly new phenomenon in the white-coat and pocket-protector world of atmospheric science.

A study published in the heart journal Circulation last June shed some light on the health effects of particulate matter.

The report stated that particulate matter air pollution inflames heart tissue and could trigger heart attacks, cause heart disease, and generally damage the body in a way similar to the effects of second-hand cigarette smoke.

Ever since then, scientists have shifted their attention toward particulate matter pollution. A flurry of studies have been published, or are under way, all dedicated to finding out what particulate matter does to the body, and how it’s formed.

Environmentalists and regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are also more focused on particulate matter.

The EPA is updating and strengthening its particulate matter standards. Metro Atlanta now violates the EPA’s current particulate matter standards, and when the new rules go into effect, probably in 2004, most of the rest of the state will too.

“The more we learn, the more it becomes apparent that while smog is really bad, it is these fine particles that are the real killers,” says Colleen Kiernan, Georgia Energy Project Organizer for the Sierra Club. “And what’s worse, the problem is not confined to metro Atlanta; monitors across the state have picked up unhealthy levels of soot everywhere except Brunswick.”

Last December, the Sierra Club of Georgia, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Georgia Forestwatch filed a lawsuit against Georgia Power, accusing the company of allowing Plant Wansley, located in Heard County, of violating the Clean Air Act and emitting more pollution than its permit allows. The pollution Plant Wansley emits forms particulate matter and ground level ozone, according to the suit.

Naturally, big polluters want to downplay any role in the formation of particulate matter, which has led to blame games.

Neighboring states blame each other for the pollution that migrates across stateliness. Road builders blame electric utilities, and vice versa.

It was this time last year, during a drive up to Cartersville for a tour of Plant Bowen, that Georgia Power environmental engineer Steve Ewald explained that automobile exhaust, not power plants, leads to the formation of particulate matter.

But the new study contradicts that belief.

Published in the January 2003 edition of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, the study found that carbon emissions from cars were responsible for spikes in particulate matter concentrations in the morning.

Yet, spikes in the afternoon were traced to sulfur-based compounds. To Rodney Weber, an earth and atmospheric sciences professor at Georgia Tech who conducted the study, local power plants were to blame for the afternoon spikes.

The report “tells us where Atlanta’s air quality degradation is coming from — power plants and cars. That’s not new,” Weber says. “But the Southern Co. — the power plant people tend to say that sulfates are a problem all over the eastern United States. But in Atlanta — and I think this is the point of the paper — you’ve got large transient events [spikes in particulate matter] and they’re sulfate, and they’re generally in the afternoon, which means they’re probably coming from a Southern Co. plant, a local one too, at least within the state.”

Southern’s power plants emitted 512,493 tons of sulfur in 2002. Plant Bowen, a 50-minute drive up I-75, emitted 160,533 tons of sulfur, more than what was emitted in the entire state of Mississippi in 2002.

Chris Hobson, vice president of environmental affairs at Georgia Power, doesn’t refute Weber’s findings.

“Clearly, power plants, and the sulfate emissions that result from power plants, play a large part in the makeup of particle. So if we’ve ever said anything to indicate that we didn’t think sulfates make up [particulate matter], then that was misinterpreted,” Hobson says. “What we have said is that of all the [types of chemicals] that make up particles, there are going to be some that are benign, and there are going to be some that have health consequences.”

Hobson argues that the research he’s seen says carbon-based elements of particulate matter, which comes from cars, is to blame for the dangerous health effects of particulate matter.

Hobson’s claim and Weber’s study only add to the debate. Neither settles the particulate matter mystery definitively.

So it goes with air pollution science; there’s always another study that adds another dynamic.

Here’s an interesting one: In a study conducted in a sealed chamber and written up in Science last year, researchers found that acidic aerosols like sulfates catalyze particulate matter, suggesting that power plants help emissions from cars and trucks form the carbon-based particulate matter.

“There’s no arguing that air pollution comes from both cars and power plants, but it is pretty ironic that some of these recent studies show that power plant pollution actually reacts with the pollution from cars, making it even more dangerous,” says the Sierra Club’s Kiernan. “This really underscores the need to have the least amount of air pollution possible.”