Great strides to improve air quality over the past two decades have paid off in the Smokies.

Views on the worst-visibility days a decade ago were about 28 miles, compared to 70 miles today.

“That’s progress you can see, and it’s no more visible than right here in the mountains of Western North Carolina,” said Mike Abraczinskas, Director, head of the N.C. Division of Air Quality. “It is truly remarkable what we’ve achieved. This is something we can all cherish and take pride in.”

Abraczinskas said improvements in air quality are due to many factors: stricter federal regulations for power plants and factories, emission standards for vehicles, and voluntary efforts as a result of regional air initiatives.

Despite gains, some measures of air quality in the state — most notably ozone related to vehicle emissions — were creeping toward non compliance with federal standards last year, prompting fears about what the 2020 ozone season would bring.

That trend didn’t end up playing out this year after all, however.

“About the time the 2020 ozone season started, so did the pandemic,” Abraczinskas said.

Abraczinskas was one of several speakers at the annual State of Our Air press conference last week, hosted by Land of Sky Regional Council. During the virtual event that highlights the latest air quality data and regional clean air initiatives, Abraczinskas shared interesting data on vehicle miles traveled statewide in March and April, during the height of shut-down orders, compared to the previous year.

“Once the first executive order came out in mid-March, things drastically changed from a vehicle miles traveled across the state,” he said.

Vehicle miles dropped by 35% to 40% compared to last year’s level during the last half of March, paralleling the closure of schools and the initial shift to employees working from home.

By April, when the state’s Stay At Home order took effect, vehicle miles traveled dropped to 40% to 50% compared to the same time last year.

“So how does that manifest itself in the air pollution data we collect? The 2020 data is all lower,” Abraczinskas said, citing nitrogen dioxide emissions from vehicles. “It supports what we’ve all been presuming — that a reduction in vehicle miles resulted in improvements to air quality.”

It’s too soon to say whether vehicle miles traveled will return to prior levels when the pandemic is over, or whether the shift to working from home will become the new normal.

Regardless, population growth in WNC could eventually outpace air quality gains. More people leads to an increase in air pollution sources, from more vehicles to greater power demand. The public can help counter it by reducing energy consumption to avoid power plant expansions and adopting cleaner fuel vehicles.

“Yes, we have improved air quality and it is a great environmental success story, but we are also seeing population growth,” said Bill Eaker, senior environmental planner for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. “To keep up with that growth, we have to reduce emissions from every source to hold the line.”

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