State resumes ozone testing

Air-quality monitor installed in city after 3 years without one

Sun follow-up

August 29, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Prodded by complaints from city health officials, the Ehrlich administration has resumed monitoring for ozone air pollution in Baltimore after ending the testing three years ago.

In 2003, Baltimore became one of the few large cities in the nation to lack an ozone monitor. The state had operated monitors in Baltimore for nearly two decades, but administration officials said the testing was a waste of money because the state was sampling in suburban areas.

State and city officials said yesterday that the Maryland Department of the Environment has reversed course and installed a $26,000 ozone monitor in a city recreation center in Northeast Baltimore.

"This just reassures the people of Maryland and the people of Baltimore that we are doing the best we can to monitor the air," said Robert Ballenger, a spokesman for the state agency.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said he began pressing for a resumption of the monitoring in February after reading an article in The Sun that revealed the lack of testing. In a letter to the state, Sharfstein pointed out that the city has the highest rate of asthma-related deaths in Maryland and needs accurate information about ozone because it is a well-known trigger for asthma attacks.

"It was not a defensible position to say this was not needed," Sharfstein said yesterday. "Ozone monitoring can help people with asthma plan their day and understand the risks they may be facing," he said. "And it helps us understand the air quality in the city better."

Ballenger declined to say yesterday why the MDE had changed its position. But he acknowledged "some concerns that some people have about asthma." He said the city's Health Department had been "instrumental" in finding a secure location for the ozone monitor. In the past, some ozone monitors in the city have been vandalized, he said.

In February, David Krask, the state's chief of ambient air monitoring, called ozone testing in the city "redundant" and "a wasteful expenditure of funds" because the state has monitors in Harford County and other suburban areas.

"You don't need to have a monitor on every corner to know that the air in one place isn't as clean as in another place," said Richard McIntire, then MDE spokesman, at the time.

Sharfstein said yesterday that the state had reversed its position in part because of an analysis by the city Health Department. He said that after the newspaper article, his department requested the state's file on Baltimore's ozone monitoring. City officials looked at 624 dates from 1995 to 2001 and found that ozone levels in Baltimore were higher than those in nearby suburban areas about 18 percent of the time, Sharfstein said.

"We saw the data set, and made the case that it really did make sense to have an ozone monitor in the city, and the MDE agreed with that," Sharfstein said.

Ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, forms when vehicle exhaust and other fumes combine in sunlight on hot summer days. The gas irritates lungs and can cause asthma attacks and permanent lung damage.

The Baltimore area has failed federal standards for ozone pollution for more than a decade. In the period without a monitor in the city - May 2003 through August 2006 - the entire region failed, based on readings in the suburbs.

The number of days on which Maryland's air violated federal ozone standards had been falling slowly over the years. It dropped sharply in 2003 -- from 14 days in 2002 to one day in 2003 - when the state stopped monitoring ozone in the city.

The state maintains 17 ozone monitors and 18 soot pollution samplers across the state, from Hagerstown to Calvert County. In addition to the new ozone monitor in Northeast Baltimore, five soot detectors gauge air pollution levels in Baltimore.

Air pollution monitoring helps determine whether states receive millions of dollars in federal highway funds, said Rena Steinzor, an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland. States can "cheat" the system, and make their air pollution levels look lower than they really are, by eliminating ozone monitoring stations, she said.

By resuming ozone monitoring in Maryland's largest city, "we are preventing a gaming of the system," Steinzor said. "And this is very important for the Chesapeake Bay, because 30 percent of the nutrient [pollution] in the bay comes from the air."

Brad Heavner, executive director of Environment Maryland, an advocacy group, said it's good the state will monitor smog in the city again. "You can't say the air is clean when you haven't even gone out and looked," Heavner said.

Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who is now an environmental advocate, said it never made sense for the state to stop monitoring for ozone in an area that continued to fail federal standards.

"This is terrific," Schaeffer said of the resumption of testing. "Not to have an ozone monitor in Baltimore, in an area the government already said was not in attainment, doesn't make any sense."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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