Cleaner air benefits tourism as well as health and the environment

Monday, July 25, 2016 - 12:00 am

If the air seems clearer in North Carolina these days, it’s not your imagination.

Scenic views are better than ever in North Carolina, thanks to statewide improvements in air quality over the past two decades. Cleaner air is benefiting public health as well as the economy, with better visibility increasing views and enhancing visitor experiences.

Measurements by state and federal environmental officials show that visibility, or the distance that people can see on clear days, has steadily improved since the 1990s. For example, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the average visibility on the clearest days increased from 54 miles in 1996 to 89 miles in 2014. On the haziest days, the visibility increased from 10 miles to 33 miles.

“We are literally able to see the improvements in air quality across North Carolina,” said Sheila Holman, director of the state Division of Air Quality. “Clearer air means that residents and visitors are better able to enjoy views of our mountains, coastal waters, urban skylines and other scenic areas.”

Views showing visibility improvements in Smoky Mountains National Park.

The visibility improvements are a direct result of state and federal measures to reduce air pollution. Air quality monitoring shows that levels of key pollutants have dropped dramatically over this time period, resulting from a series of state and federal measures that led to emissions reductions from industry, power plants and motor vehicles.

Those measures include:

  • The Clean Smokestacks Act that the state legislature passed in 2002, requiring North Carolina coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions by about three-fourths over the following decade.
  • Stricter federal limits on emissions from utilities and other large industrial sources.
  • Stricter federal limits on emissions from new cars and trucks.
  • Federal requirements for cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel.

The Clean Smokestacks Act specifically targeted emission of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are the key cause of ozone, the most widespread air quality issue in North Carolina, and contribute to haze, acid rain and nutrient pollution of waters. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is the main cause of haze, contributes to fine particle pollution, acid rain and can damage to trees and crops. Since the late 1990s, North Carolina power plants have cut their SO2 emissions by 94 percent and NOx emissions by 88 percent.

In addition to clearer skies, the emissions cuts have led to healthier air quality for the public and the environment. North Carolina is currently meeting all federal air quality standards. For more information about air issues, visit the N.C. Division of Air Quality website at www.ncair.org