Alexandria’s air quality improving, according to state and regional bodies

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Alexandria’s air quality improving, according to state and regional bodies
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

It has taken a combination of factors, including the closure of the GenOn coal-fired power plant and the implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Community Action for a Renewed Environment program, but the data is clear: Alexandria’s air is getting cleaner.

The city receives reports on its air quality from Clean Air Partners, a nonprofit partnership chartered by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which provides the color-coded air quality index indicating how healthy the air is on any particular day.

As of the time of writing, Alexandria had only received two Code Orange days this year — unhealthy for sensitive groups — and zero Code Red days, which indicate the air is generally unhealthy. All other days were Code Green — good quality.

It is an improvement from 2013 and 2014, when Alexandria had no Code Red days but did have four Code Orange days each year. And while the current numbers may change, summer is more conducive for pollution and thus more likely to produce less clean air.

“Air is getting better all the time. It may seem like it’s in slow-motion, but it is true and it is happening, and it’s very important,” said City Councilor Del Pepper, the city’s representative on the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee, at a city council meeting last month. “Alexandria has excellent air and that must have something to do
with the wonderful things we’re doing to keep pollutants out of the air so we can all breathe it.”

It turns out there is plenty going on at the federal, state and local levels to minimize pollutants in the air, and it is having a big effect, especially on the most troubling of pollutants.

“The largest, most recent [program], was the CARE rule phase one, which dealt with primarily large air pollution point sources,” said Bill Skrabak, director of environmental quality at the city department of transportation and environmental services. “In general, the pollutant of most concern is more of a regional pollutant: ozone. There’s an eight-hour standard, and for the region as a whole, 2015 was a good year. It used to be, we would have [pollution] exceedances nearly every time the temperature was above 90 degrees, because that usually meant it was a clear sunny day.

“Now, it’s [still] routine for us to have a 90 degree day, but we don’t have an air quality issue.”

Locally, T&ES is still actively combating pollution in Alexandria, especially at the residential level and businesses that are not necessarily big polluters.

“We’re one of the few localities that still has a local air pollution program, whereas in Virginia, most of the air pollution issues are addressed at the state level,” Skrabak said. “What T&ES does is in particular we do inspect the larger air pollution sources that are still left in the city; we inspect those typically once a year. Then the other thing we do is when there are complaints are about odors or excessive smoke or excessive idling, we’re the ones that go back and try to follow up on those and investigate those to the extent we can and put provisions in development plans to try to reduce impacts from air quality.”

Even with the closure of the GenOn plant, there are still several polluters in the city, including the Virginia Paving Company’s branch office and plant on Courtney Avenue on the West End. The company is a division of The Lane Construction Company, and says on its website that it considers environmental safety to be very important. Company spokeswoman Lauralee Heckman declined to comment further, but Skrabak said that the city continues to work to reduce any impacts.

“Obviously, with the GenOn plant having shut down, the larger air pollution source is dominated by mobile sources, which is all the cars, buses and trucks,” Skrabak said. “That’s the largest component. Then we also have some smaller point sources, which would include Virginia Paving and the [Alexandria Waste Recovery Facility at Burnside Place]. Those are the two small to medium size sources, but nothing close to what GenOn was doing.”

One aspect of air pollution that can be hard to predict and control is so-called transported pollution, which travels from other jurisdictions in the wind. It is more complex than simply air from Arlington or Fairfax counties reaching Alexandria, and is usually because of power plants in the Midwest or from Baltimore, so is handled at the federal and state levels.

“[In] the CARE regulations, each state was given a budget reduction target and then those large sources in each state were given reduction targets that then were imposed in all the states,” Skrabak said. “Typically when they talk about transport, it’s moving into the whole region, because basically the same controls they do on a regional basis. The Metropolitan Washington area tries to be comparable [across all three jurisdictions].”

The EPA is revising its air quality standards, as part of the Clean Air Act. As those regulations move forward, officials hope the city will maintain its positive trajectory.

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