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Off and On: Air is filled with more than pollen

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By Ralph Damiani

Been sneezing lately? Eyes a bit watery? Nose a bit irritated?

Well, it could just be that it is more than the pollen that is flying about that is causing you distress.

According to two Associated Press stories, there is more flying in the air in this part of the world than dust.

San Juan County ranks No. 6 on a list of U.S. counties with the highest carbon dioxide emissions in a study published in a scientific journal.

And coal-fired power plants and other pollution sources in the Four Corners area could boost smog levels past federal limits in New Mexico and southwest Colorado this summer, government officials and environment and health care managers warn.

The 10 worst counties for carbon dioxide emissions, according to the study, are as follows:

• Harris, Texas (Houston);

• Los Angeles, Calif.;

• Cook, Ill. (Chicago);

• Cuyahoga, Ohio (Cleveland);

• Wayne, Mich. (Detroit);

• San Juan, N.M. (Farmington);

• Santa Clara, Calif. (San Jose);

• Jefferson, Ala. (Birmingham);

• Wilcox, Ala. (Camden); and

• East Baton Rouge, La. (Baton Rouge).

“This is really due to the electrical demand,” the study’s author, Purdue University professor Kevin Gurney, told the AP. “There is a widespread phenomena to produce power and send it to other areas.”

His research was published in the April 17 issue of ScienceDaily. Most of his data came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but he also obtained information from a federal acid rain program, the Federal Home Administration and the 2000 Census.

Part of San Juan County’s pollution is due to the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow and the Four Corners Power Plant in Upper Fruitland.

Air quality also is affected by pollution from petroleum and petrochemical production, Gurney said.

The main contributors to San Juan County’s carbon emissions are the two power plants, said Mary Uhl, bureau chief of the state Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau.

“There is no doubt that coal is the most carbon-dioxide-emitting energy,” Gurney said. “Natural gas is better, and there’s also wind- and solar-generated energy.”

Susan Sponar, a spokeswoman for Public Service Company of New Mexico, which operates the San Juan Generating Station, said Gurney’s conclusions are not surprising since two of the largest coal-burning power plants in the United States are in San Juan County and others are nearby.

PNM is in the middle of a $320 million upgrade to lessen carbon emissions, she said. It also is participating in a study by the Electric Power Research Institute toward developing cost-effective technology to take carbon out of plant emissions, Sponar said.

Meanwhile, Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez could exceed federal air-quality standards, said participants at an air-quality forum at Fort Lewis College.

“Very serious air-quality issues need to be addressed, particularly ozone,” Uhl told the AP.

She said San Juan County in northwest New Mexico might violate federal standards this summer, and southwest Colorado might, too. Uhl added that Mesa Verde might also be out of compliance if it’s a bad summer.

Ground-level ozone, a key component of smog, is created when the sun bakes pollutants such as vehicle exhaust, wildfire smoke and vapors from everything from paint cans to oil and gas wells. The Environmental Protection Agency in March tightened the ozone limit to 75 parts per billion, down from the maximum concentration of 80-84 parts per billion.

Even before the new standard, a nine-county area along Colorado’s Front Range, including the Denver area, was declared in violation of the ozone standard. State regulators have imposed more stringent rules on the oil and gas industry to help cut pollution.

Uhl noted that the Four Corners area is home to two coal-fired power plants, with another one proposed, and 19,000 oil and gas wells, with 12,000 more projected over the next 20 years.

Other air-quality problems in the area are haze, mercury and nitrate pollution, Uhl said.

She said the region contains seven Class 1 sites, generally national parks or wilderness areas, where the air quality is supposed to be better than in other areas.

So while that antihistamine you are taking may help, it is just possible that those air-borne plant parts are not the complete cause of your problems.

E-mail Ralph at ralph@lamonitor.com.