May 30, 2009
The science of smog

I thought this was a very interesting article about a current research project that is investigating the effect of industrial flares from refineries and chemical plants on ozone levels, but one bit of it really amazed me.

Industrial flares burn off pressurized gases but also can shoot out massive amounts of noxious emissions. The Houston area has about 400 flare stacks, and they are among the largest and least- understood sources of pollution in the region, researchers said.

A recent University of North Carolina study found that formaldehyde from flares may increase Houston's ozone by as much as 30 parts per billion. In tandem with the pollution that blows into the region from elsewhere, that might be enough to keep Houston from meeting the new federal ozone limit of 75 parts per billion, scientists said.

The state's current plan for reducing Houston's smog doesn't consider formaldehyde and other precursors.

"If there is a problem with flares, it upends the entire regulatory strategy," said Harvey Jeffries, an atmospheric chemist who conducted the UNC study.

How is it that we're just now getting around to studying this? I mean, anyone looking at one of those flares blazing away would automatically assume that's putting a lot of nasty stuff into the atmosphere. I have a hard time understanding how come we don't have a better handle on just how nasty the effects are. Am I missing something?

Oh, and by the way, living in the suburbs is no escape.

Twice in the past week, the Fort Bend County city has exceeded the federal limit for ozone, a critical threshold under the nation's Clean Air Act.

And the forecast calls for more heavy smog today.

"Ozone obviously isn't stopping at the Harris County line," said Barry Lefer, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Houston.

Until this smog season, which began in March, Fort Bend was the most populous county in Texas without a monitoring station to measure air pollution. At the request of County Judge Bob Hebert in January, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for fighting ozone in smog-prone places including Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, agreed to help pay for a monitor at UH's Sugar Land campus.


Some smog watchers said the early readings from the Sugar Land monitor underscore the need for more on the outskirts of the eight-county Houston region.

"These folks don't know that they could have air-quality problems," said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the clean-air advocacy group Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention.

I'm thinking the politics of clean air change considerably when places like Fort Bend start seeing it as their problem as well. You can run away from some problems, but you can't hide from them forever.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 30, 2009 to Technology, science, and math
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