Thursday, May 26, 2022

Wilmington ranks top of the nation in study on air quality

According to a recent study, Wilmington is ranked in the top six cleanest cities in the nation. The study considered ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution over a two-year period to determine its rankings.

Wilmington was ranked as one of the nation's cleanest cities for air quality in the American Lung Association's 2018 "State of the Air" report. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Wilmington was ranked as one of the nation’s cleanest cities for air quality in the American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)

WILMINGTON—Though there’s concern over water, the air quality in the Port City ranks as one of the best in the nation.

The American Lung Association released its 2018 State of the Air report, and Wilmington topped several of the study’s rankings of air quality.

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Wilmington made the study’s list of top six “cleanest-cities” for the second year in a row. The city debuted on the top six “cleanest cities” list in 2017.

This comprehensive ranking considered three factors: ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution. Based on data reported to the Environmental Protection Agency, the study found Wilmington “had zero high ozone or high particle pollution days and were among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle levels.” 

Out of the hundreds of cities studied, the American Lung Association found Wilmington to rank in the top 25 in each of its three multi-faceted measurement rankings.

“Wilmington has the great distinction of being one of the cleanest cities,” Lyndsay Alexander said.

An ash-free, cleaner city

Alexander is the director of the Healthy Air Campaign. She credits the Clean Air Act and other clean-up efforts as being essential to the area’s improved air quality.

“North Carolina has benefitted tremendously from the clean up of coal power plants,” Alexander said.

Legal requirements mandated Duke Energy to close 19 coal ash basins at its coal-fired power plants over the past several years. In February, Duke Energy was partly successful in its attempt to shelve its losses incurred from the closure of its coal ash basins onto its North Carolina customers.

“The cleanup of those old dirty power plants has benefitted the state of North Carolina and the cleanup of pollution that helps Wilmington,” Alexander said.

Compared to Los Angeles, the city with the worst ozone pollution, Wilmington had zero high ozone days over the two-year study period.

Ozone — commonly referred to as smog — is a gas molecule that is harmful to breathe.

Coming from smokestacks, which also produce particle pollution, ozone “aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it” according to the American Lung Association.

Clean and improving

With the coastline and greenspace still holding on, Wilmington has some natural clean air advantages. Still, Alexander defines clean air as being pollution-free.

“Healthy air is the absence of pollution,” Alexander said. “Healthy air doesn’t make us sick or die prematurely.”

In 2017, the study ranked Wilmington 23 out of the top 25 cleanest U.S. cities for year-round particle pollution. In this year’s report, Wilmington moved up to 12th, with its concentration of particle pollutants decreasing from 6.5 to 5.9.

“Moving from 6.5 to 5.9 is an improvement, so you saw a reduction in annual particle pollution,” Alexander said. “That’s good news because according to the World Health Organization there’s no known safe level.”

Alexander said Wilmington does meet its standard of particle pollutants allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Pollutants identified and measured by N.C. Department of Environmental Quality include:

  • Ozone
  • Particulate matter
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Nitrogen Dioxide
  • Lead

“North Carolina is a great success story in that we are in attainment with all air quality standards across the entire state,” Michael Pjetra, deputy director for the DEQ’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ), said.

Pjetra said every five years, the EPA revisits its air quality standards. In 2015, the EPA strengthened its ozone standards, lowering the allowable limit of parts per billion.

“Annually we’re gathering millions of points of data in order to evaluate the ambient air quality,” Pjetra said.

Earlier this month, the DAQ gave Chemours a 60-day deadline to demonstrate its compliance with legal requirements over concerns of air emissions at Fayetteville Works, the plant that serves Chemours and DuPont.

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Based on recent measurements, DAQ finds Chemours’ annual emissions of the chemical GenX to be 40 times higher than originally reported in 2017.

We spend hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars in equipment, to ensure that this data is accurate,” Pjetra said.

While Wilmington is improving its particle pollution annual averages, Alexander said any level of pollution could be a cause of concern.

“What is considered safe and what is considered permitted, those are two different questions,” she said. “As we learn more, scientists have said that they are not aware of a safe threshold.”

Johanna Ferebee can be reached at or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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