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From NIMBY to NIMYSOC: How Groundbreaking Atmospheric Studies Helped Change Our View of Pollution Sources

August 16, 2019

Lou Corio of POWER EngineersBy Lou Corio
Senior Air Quality Scientist, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

Almost everyone is familiar with the term “NIMBY” or “Not In My Back Yard.” Since the early 1980s, it has been a rally cry of sorts for people opposed to local development and its anticipated societal (particularly environmental) impacts. The history of environmental permitting in the U.S. is filled with examples of projects, specifically air pollutant-emitting projects, being challenged by the public flying the NIMBY banner.

In recent years, however, the NIMBY concept has morphed into something more expansive in scope: “NIMYSOC” or “Not In My Yard, State, Or Country.” From an air quality standpoint, what factors have contributed to this far-ranging opposition to new projects?

The notion that people should be paying closer attention to emission sources across the country or even on the other side of the world is rooted in groundbreaking studies on long-range pollutant transport and global climate impact.

Long-Range Transport Studies

Over the last 50 years, these studies have primarily addressed air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act (CAA), such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and ozone.

Starting in the 1970s, studies in the U.S. and Europe have shown that emissions of SO2 and NOx from tall stack sources transform into acidic compounds and are transported to downwind regions before falling to the ground as acid rain. The findings of these studies provided the impetus for amendments to the CAA (in 1990), known as the Acid Rain Program, to reduce the emissions contributing to acid rain.

Aerial view to shanghai skyscrapers cityscape over - behing the Bund waterfront promenade in the early morning fog - mist. The Bund Shanghai Customs House in the front right corner. Shanghai, China.

Pollutant Transport. Emissions from sources located locally and in distant upwind regions can contribute
significantly to pollution levels in downwind urban areas.

The well-documented success of the Acid Rain Program demonstrated how reducing emissions from sources in upwind regions can improve the environment in regions that are hundreds of miles downwind.

Ozone pollution studies conducted in the 1990s and 2000s showed that in parts of the Northeastern U.S., regional transport via an “elevated reservoir” of ozone and ozone-forming pollutants was the most significant contributor to bad ozone days in downwind areas. (Ozone is not emitted directly by sources but is formed from emitted precursor gases–NOx and volatile organic compounds.)

For example, in Baltimore, Maryland, regional pollutant transport was found to be responsible for 70% of the ozone problem. Aircraft- and ground-based instruments were used to confirm the presence and concentrations of pollutants many thousands of feet above ground, traveling hundreds of miles with the winds aloft.

Continent-to-continent pollutant transport also has been confirmed through modeling and measurement studies over the past 25 years. Ozone and other pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, have been shown to be transported from Asia to the U.S. and from the U.S. to Europe.

Global Climate Impact Studies

Outside of the purview of the CAA, intensive studies have been conducted since the late 1960s using global-scale climate models to predict the potential impact of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas[1] (GHG) levels on temperatures.

These complex computer models simulate the effects of increasing GHG levels on climate by accounting for the physical processes that transfer energy and matter (e.g., gases) between atmosphere, ocean, land and sea ice. As computing power increased over time and the physical processes became better understood and modeled, confidence in modeling results increased.

How air pollution travels, with link to a PDFGlobal climate model predictions have showed a consistent, ominous trend over time. The earliest predictions showed that increasing atmospheric CO2 levels would result in average global temperature increases over coming decades. Interestingly, when these first model predictions were made, global temperature observations in the 1960s and early 1970s showed a modest planetary cooling. As expected, the predictions were given little credence.

Using more complex models, studies conducted by scientists in the 1970s and 1980s continued to show global warming with increasing atmospheric GHG levels. The results presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the 1990s and 2000s reinforced and fine-tuned the previously-predicted trend, while outlining the potential detrimental effects on society and ecosystems.

U.S. Regional and International Initiatives to Reduce Emissions

The body of evidence generated by these long-range transport and global climate modeling studies spurred the formation of regional U.S. and international organizations focused on developing and implementing emissions reduction measures on a large geographic scale.

For example, the Ozone Transport Commission was founded in 1991 by CAA mandate to address the regional ground-level ozone problem. The Commission has representatives from 12 Northeastern U.S. states and the District of Columbia. As another example, in 2015 nearly 200 countries/state parties adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement, committing to reducing GHG emissions with the goal of limiting the global temperature increase.

A Well-Informed Public

Through the findings of these and other groundbreaking atmospheric studies, the public has come to understand that emissions of a variety of air pollutants can have important environmental impacts well beyond their area of origin.

The Internet and social media platforms rapidly disseminate information and educate the public on the issues of concern. As a result, the public is more aware of the potential regional-to-global impacts of air emissions, expanding the geographic scope of interest and energizing environmental activism.

An organized and well-funded opposition, usually by national organizations, is also more common today with a particular focus on industrial and power generation sources. Such sources historically have been recognized as large emitters of air pollutants, including GHGs.

Shrinking World, Expanding Opposition

We often hear it said that the world is getting to be a smaller place. The NIMYSOC concept reflects that viewpoint, fueled by the findings of numerous pollutant transport and impact studies and stoked by social media and the Internet.

Large air pollutant emission sources will continue to receive scrutiny from far and wide and should be prepared to defend their projects regardless of their ability to comply with air quality rules.

About the Author:

Lou has been providing air quality consulting services to industry and government and conducting special atmospheric studies since 1983. He has extensive experience with important air quality topics, including New Source Review (both Prevention of Significant Deterioration and nonattainment areas) and Title V permitting, atmospheric dispersion model development, evaluation, and application; utility and industry facility air compliance assessments and audits; Environmental Impacts Statements and Environmental Assessments, most recently for LNG export terminals; and inhalation risk assessment. He has directed or conducted technical research projects on complex air quality issues such as nitrate deposition to the Chesapeake Bay and condensable particulate matter (PM) measurement method challenges. Lou has developed guidance documents for trade organizations for complying with major air regulations, such as Title V operating permits and Risk Management Programs/Plans. He has provided public hearing support and testimony in numerous Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) proceedings on power generation source licensing. Do you have questions for Lou? Send him an email at lou.corio@powereng.com.

[1] A GHG is any gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and radiating it back to the surface, thus creating a greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide (CO2), a product of fossil fuel combustion, and methane are two commonly-emitted GHGs.