Pollution's purple haze is creeping over Dixie

Growing car and coal-plant emissions are causing a smog buildup over

The gentle Appalachian promontories, shoulders, and notches that Don Barger has called home for most of his 50 years are literally disappearing before his eyes.

Thick, brown wafts of acidic smog envelop the blue-green peaks so tightly on many summer days that hikers on Clingman's Dome can't even see the spectral outline of 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell rising nearby. Sure, statistics say visibility is still about 15 miles on an average summer day - down from 50 miles just a few years ago - but Mr. Barger says he often has trouble seeing to the next ridge.

Once associated only with urban centers such as Los Angeles or Denver, pollution has now come to Dixie. Generated by growing throngs of cars as well as an antique, dirty fleet of coal-fired power plants, the purple-tinged haze of pollution has crept over huge tracts of the South, from Houston across Appalachia to the quiet coves of North Carolina's Pamlico Sound.

The region has become America's new pollution trouble spot, and it is now just beginning to deal with the side effects of this decade's phenomenal growth.

"In the Southeastern US, regional haze is more and more of a problem, and more and more so-called rural areas are seeing the effects," says Jeff Clark, policy director for the Environmental Protection Agency. "Their levels of ozone have gone up considerably over the last few years, and it's more than just a trend in weather."

Indeed, rapidly disappearing vistas and a quadrupling of "bad air" days since 1995 have added up to Great Smoky Mountain National Park being ranked recently as the country's most polluted park, with Virginia's Shenandoah National Park just to the north coming in a close second.

In some areas of western North Carolina, entire populations of fir trees have been killed off by the encroaching smog.

"The Clean Air Act specified that our national parks should have the cleanest air on earth," says Mr. Barger, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association."A whole generation later, we're still going the wrong way."

But the problem is by no means limited to far-flung frontiers of the South. Like a surgeon armed with a shovel instead of a scalpel, plant pathologist Allen Heagle has found that smog in North Carolina's agricultural belts has also affected tobacco, peanuts, soybeans, and cotton - key ingredients of the state's prosperity.

"We get the bad air from Ohio, Tennessee, even Houston and New York City on some days, and it just sits here and cooks," says Dr. Heagle, a researcher at North Carolina State University here. "We see foliage symptoms that affect growth.

And when you affect photosynthesis, you affect the yield."

Heagle's lab is now producing smog-resistant cultivars to curb yield losses that have topped 10 percent recently, but park rangers in the Smokies are at a loss for how to rescue up to 30 plant species wilting from the bombardment of pollution.

Everyone from industry representatives to die-hard environmentalists agrees that ozone, a naturally occurring gas known to trap thousands of tons of other pollutants, has found an ideal foothold in the New South.

With more sport-utility-vehicle driving professionals commuting into cities such as Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., from farther-away suburbs, more and more volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) are entering the air.

The car emissions mix with nitrogen oxide from coal plants and cook into ozone under the broiling sun of a typical Southern summer day. What's more, these plants are being asked to produce more energy.

"We are the ones who demand gigantic shopping malls that we have to air condition in the summer," says Barger. "The demand for energy is pretty large and growing."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state air-quality officials and industry groups agree that emissions from both cars and coal plants must be curbed in order to once again clear the Southern skies.

But there remains a difference of opinion on who should do how much to clean up the region's air. Environmentalists claim that nitrogen oxide and other pollutants spewed from the South's myriad coal-fired plants travel on winds for hundreds of miles, reaching even New England on some days.

But Tom Mathers, a spokesman for North Carolina's Air Quality Division, questions the "regional drift" data put out by the EPA in recent studies.

"We know we contribute to the problem in South Carolina and Virginia," Mr. Mathers says. "But ... on very rare days do we have anything to do with the situation in the Northeast."

North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt last week proposed cuts in total yearly emissions from coal-fired plants in the state, but the proposal fell far short of the EPA's goal.

Private utility companies in North Carolina and the South are also not convinced that cleanups will have a noticeable impact on air quality. They have resisted paying millions of dollars to install more scrubbers in their smokestacks.

Court decisions have also played a role in hindering regionwide antipollution effort. A 22-state "good neighbor" order remains hung up in a Washington federal court.

Earlier this year, a federal district judge struck down a strict new safe-air standard.

Now, many conservationists are looking to Congress to deal with a 1977 "grandfathering loophole" that allows utilities to simply update old coal plants instead of retrofitting them for cleaner-burning natural gas.

Until then, the Tennessee Valley Authority, a huge federally run utility, should lead by example, updating old plants and converting to cleaner fuels, says Barger.

At the behest of "green power" advocates, the TVA will soon start selling a small amount of wind and solar power through its regional grid, yet some observers say there's much more that needs to be done.

In the Smokies, so named for the natural mists that cling to rolling slopes in the mornings, pollution is already a part of local mythology, says Ulla Reeves, clean air program director for the Tennessee Valley Energy Reform Coalition.

Says Ms. Reeves: "Some young people think we named them the Smoky Mountains because of the pollution."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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