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November 16, 1999

Envision Mobile-Baldwin Air Quality Study:

What Questions Do You Want Answered?

by Edmund Tsang


Alabama Coastal Foundation - Lisa Adams

Alabama Department of Environmental Management - James W. Warr

Alabama Power Company - Bernie Fogarty

City of Mobile - Mike Dow, Mayor (Chair)

City of Pritchard - Dr. Mentor Catlin

Higher Education/University of South Alabama - Dr. Judy Stout

Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce - Jim Apple

Mobile Bay Watch, Inc. - Casi Callaway

Mobile County - Sam Jones/Gary Tanner, Commissioners

Mobile County Health Department - Dr. Bert Eichold

Medical Society of Mobile County - Dr. Ken Brewington

Mobile United - Dr. George Crozier

National Estuary Program - Lisa Mills

One Hundred Black Men - Damon Wickware

The Forum - Steve Perry

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist Kenneth Mitchell addressed the Envision Mobile-Baldwin Air Quality Study Task Force last October as it began its project of developing a comprehensive air-quality study for Mobile County. As reported in the Mobile daily, Mitchell told the task force that before beginning the study, "[I]t's very important that you determine the goal of your study. In other words, what is the question you're trying to answer."

In a telephone interview last week, Mitchell said that "there are a number of ways of carrying out an air-quality study, and different monitoring schemes have different goals in mind. If the intent is to determine how a specific facility [that emits pollutants] affects a specific population, the monitoring station should be placed in that neighborhood," Mitchell explained. "If the goal is to determine what is the average risk posed to any person by all the pollutants, you may want to place the monitoring stations differently. Where you put the monitors depends on your goals."

Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Bay Watch, Inc., the group that successfully campaigned for the air-quality study, said she agrees with Mitchell's recommendation regarding setting a goal before the study gets underway. "The goal of this study," Callaway said, "is to find the facts: what are the 'ingredients' and how much are in our air. This will enable us to determine everything else."

City of Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, chair of the task force, said via a telephone interview that the goal of the air quality study should be to determine what the "facts" are so future decisions would not be based on "emotion."

Mayor Dow referred to a recent study by EPA that identifies the cities in U.S. that are cited for "non-attainment" of air quality. "All medium and major cities in the Southeast, with the exception of Huntsville and Mobile, are listed, and Mobile would most likely be cited for 'non- attainment' next year," Dow said. "The magnitude of it really concerns me." The number of days in which health alerts have been issued for ground-level ozone last year would place Mobile in the "non-attainment" category, but a federal court has ruled against the EPA regarding enforcement.

Yet Dow said he is puzzled by the nature of the air-quality problem, because industrial emissions have been cut drastically in the past several years. "Industry in Mobile has cut emission by 78 million pounds, to the current twenty million pounds, in six years," Dow said. "The paper mills are 100 percent dioxin free and 96 percent chlorine free. Now, industry is doing well [in cutting down emissions]. What's going on? I want to know what's in the air?"

Apples and Oranges?

Ron Gore of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) told the Harbinger in a telephone interview that the six pollutants the state environmental agency currently monitors are ozone, particulate, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and carbon monoxide, and in Mobile County sulfur dioxide is also monitored. Gore said EPA picks these six compounds to monitor "national-wide" because it knows the safety threshold of these chemicals. Gore said other chemicals had been monitored over the years, but the monitoring had been discontinued because the concentrations of the chemicals detected were very low.

Regarding the air sampling conducted by EPA in the City of Prichard over a three-day period in January 1999, Gore said it targeted very specific chemicals not on the national list. Gore said that the fact that some of the air samples collected by EPA were "grab" samples collected over one minute and do not match the reference exposure level of one hour, raises the uncertainty in the results of the study. Gore said the reasons why ADEM does not monitor the chemicals detected in the Prichard air samples are because there is neither a "standard" method on how to measure the chemical nor "laboratory references," and also because there is not agreement on "what is the safe level."

Dr. Kenneth Mitchell of EPA, who carried out an analysis of the Prichard air sampling, acknowledged the limitations associated with the one-minute grab sample, but drew different conclusions. In the report on the sampling results Mitchell wrote that "[N]one of the maximum detected concentrations exceed the RELs (Reference Exposure Levels); however, since the sampling times (composite samples were taken continuously over 24 hours; grab samples were taken over approximately 1 minute) do not match the 1-hour exposure presumption of the RELs, it is not possible to say that the samples do not represent acutely toxic concentrations. This is because a high spike in concentration in a 24-hour sample could be diluted to below the REL; likewise, grab sampling time may not have been long enough to collect sufficient materials to determine whether a REL was exceeded."

The report added that "[E]specially noteworthy is the presence of chlorinated hydrocarbons and aromatic hydrocarbons in all samples, including the control location. In addition to these compounds, aliphatic hydrocarbons, aldehydes and a few other miscellaneous compounds (isopropanol, carbon disulfide) were also detected. With regard to those chemicals that exceeded a human health-based screen benchmark, all (with the exception of acetaldehyde), are either chlorinated hydrocarbons or aromatic or aliphatic hydrocarbons."

The report also stated that "[M]any of the compounds that exceed a conservative health- based screen benchmark were also reported as released to air in 1996 by TRI facilities within 5 miles of Prichard [data from 1996 are the most recent from the TRI that are available]." Even with the "caveats," the report concludes that "the study does provide adequate evidence that a potential threat to public health may exist." (See Harbinger, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, Nov. 2-15, 1999)

[Under the Community Right-to-Know provision of the Superfund legislation, industries and companies that produce, handle, or store certain hazardous chemicals have been required to file Toxic Release Inventories (TRI) to EPA since the early 1990's. Many environmentalists argue that the requirement to report TRIs has forced industries to reduce their hazardous emissions. In Mobile County, TRI emissions have been decreased by five to six times from the early 1990's to present.]

What Questions Do You Want Answered?

James Warr, ADEM director and a task force member, said, in response to a reporter's question regarding the goal of the air quality study, that "the goal of the study is for the group to decide as a whole, and not for any individual to decide." In a telephone interview last week, Warr told The Harbinger that "[A]t this point, we don't know what are the questions to ask. We need to figure out the questions. We are going through the process to develop the questions."

Bert Eichold, M.D., director of Mobile County Health Department who is also a member of the Air Quality Study Task Force, said "while we have some ideas about ozone, what is in the air that's not healthy is an unknown." For him, Eichold said, the questions he wants answered are: What is in the air? Where are the pollutants coming from? And are they interacting? "We can have eggs and oil and flour individually," Dr. Eichold explained, "but when we mix them together we get pancakes."

Dr. George Crozier, director of Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who is representing Mobile United on the air-quality study task force, said his personal goal for the study is similar to Mobile Bay Watch. "We do know that we have an air-quality problem, but how bad is it compared to other cities? And how would it affect vehicle control and industrial growth?"

Crozier added: "As a scientist, I am by nature skeptical about the claims of adverse health impact. Therefore, I want to see data that we have a public health problem, whether the air quality is good or bad." Crozier said when he asks health professionals for statistics, they cannot provide him with any specific data. "If there is a respiratory problem, how serious is it? We know that heat and humidity contribute to respiratory health problems," Crozier added. "Can we separate factors due to nature and lifestyle from carcinogenic pollutants? As a scientist, I personally would like to know this."

As a "science-based, solution-driven organization" whose goal "is to seek common ground among government, business/industry and citizens," Lisa Adams of Alabama Coastal Foundation said ACF's goals for the air quality study should be grounded on the "scientific method" of gathering data and testing hypothesis. "Of course, we all know that if the evidence does not support the hypothesis, then we begin the entire process over again by identifying and testing a new hypothesis," Adams said. Because the Task Force "cannot afford to engage in an ongoing process of developing theories and hypotheses and testing over and over," Adams said "we must indeed establish the design of the study, or else you can see the quagmire we would find ourselves in -- and the goal may be to set our limitations first."

Adams e-mailed the Harbinger the questions she would like the air quality to answer: "What basis do we have for or what determines the need for an air quality study? Can we determine health risks from the study? Can we target specific sources? How do we identify non-point sources from these impacts? What effect if any do climatic conditions have upon the Mobile County area's air quality? How does pollution from transportation and commuting versus industrial emissions compare? What is the quality of the air we breathe? What range do we accept? Who decides the health risk?" In a follow-up e-mail, Adams added that her "number 1 concern" is "How will this study affect our community? How this helps or hinders in uniting the community? There are already too many sides to this. Will there be more?"

Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce's representative on the air-quality task force, Jim Apple, said, "From the Chamber's perspective, I hope the study will produce a fairly comprehensive report about air quality of Mobile, where we stand with respect to the six primary pollutants [that are monitored nationally] and an additional list of other pollutants." Apple said he doesn't "have any notion what other pollutants" should be monitored, adding that the "first part of the study will identify which additional pollutants should be of concern."

Steve Perry, spokesperson for The Forum and also a member of the air-quality study task force, told The Harbinger that "the primary question is the quality of air in Mobile area, a quantitative measure of what is in the air." Regarding which chemicals to monitor, Perry said the task force is "seeking advice from consultants on what compounds to detect." According to Perry, The Forum represents "major industries in Mobile County, including paper and pulp, chemical, and engineering companies."

Damon Wickware, who is on the task force representing the organization One Hundred Black Men, said while there are many old smokestack industries in minority communities, the questions he wants the air quality study to answer are "what any citizen would want to know." "We know of the offensive odors in the air, the eye irritants and ozone," Wickware said. "But we don't know what or if there are other pollutants in our air, and we don't know if they are harmful." The results of the air quality study might help Mobilians to decide "how close can industry build near a neighborhood, or whether industries should be placed in various places in the county rather than concentrating in one place."

In the Slightly Confounding Department

  1. EPA's Kenneth Mitchell said before he can talk to the reporter from The Harbinger, he must have his supervisor present during the interview. Even if the questions are regarding a publication he has produced, such as the EPA report on the Prichard air study, Mitchell said he "could be fired" if he talks to a reporter without the presence of his supervisor.

    Jasmin Yorker, Mitchell's supervisor at the Atlanta office of EPA, said, "I don't know" what brought about the policy change regarding an EPA employee speaking with reporters. "I was told to inform my staff," Yorker said to the Harbinger during the interview with Mitchell. When asked whether the policy might have a chilling effect, Yorker answered: "There should be no chilling effect." Yorker said EPA employees can answer inquires from citizens without the need of a supervisor's presence, "it's only with reporters."

  2. When the Harbinger called the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) to speak to its representative on the task force, Lisa Mills, the person who answered the phone last Thursday morning said Ms. Mills was on leave at home. When the operator was asked if there is someone from NEP who can answer questions regarding its position on the air quality study, the operator said: "As of Monday there are no more NEP staff. Ask Jim Apple of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce." Apple said he is "not empowered to speak for NEP."

  3. Myrt Jones, president of Mobile Bay Audubon Society, who served alone on the Management Committee of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) representing environmentalists, said she is confounded to learn that the Alabama Power Company is a member of the task force charged to study the air quality of Mobile County. Jones noted that the U.S. Department of Justice has recently filed a lawsuit charging several utility companies, including Alabama Power Company and its parent company, Southern Company, with gross violations of the Clean Air Act. Jones said that Alabama Power Company has put up five new burners without installing pollution control devices required by the Clean Air Act. Having someone who is violating air quality put in charge of studying air quality, Jones said, is like "having the fox guard the hen house."

    While NEP was deliberating water quality last year, Jones said she brought up the issue of air pollution, but the president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, Win Hallett, said NEP should only focus on issues related to water quality. "But anyone should know that air pollutants eventually end up in the water and affect water quality," Jones said. "That's the mentality we are dealing with here."

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