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Officials say ozone level has been low this summer

By Garren Shipley - gshipley@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Residents of Winchester and Frederick County are breathing a little easier these days. Along with the rest of Virginia.

Summer 2009 is shaping up to be the best year for ozone pollution ever, according to Dan Salkovitz, a meteorologist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

"This year has been an extraordinarily good year. Unprecedented, I think, is the right word," Salkovitz said.

"We've really had no air-quality issues around the state," he said. "We had two ozone exceedances in Arlington over the summer."

Ozone occurs naturally in the atmosphere, but is considered a pollutant at ground level.

A major component of smog, it forms when volatile organic compounds react with things like nitrogen oxides from vehicles' exhaust on hot, sunny days with little wind.

High concentrations of ozone can aggravate respiratory problems like asthma.

Winchester and Frederick first ran afoul of the federal Clean Air Act at the beginning of the decade, when a spate of hot weather pushed the region over the federal standard a dozen times in two years.

Both the EPA and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality ordered the area to clean up its air, leading to a cooperative effort by local governments and private industries, as well as public outreach efforts like Valley Air Now.

EPA imposed a tighter standard in 2008 -- 75 parts per million, down from 85 parts per million, which caused some concern among local officials.

Even with the change, "Frederick County area is doing very well," Salkovitz said.

So well, in fact, that Winchester and Frederick County weren't on this year's list of "non-attainment" areas sent to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ozone season isn't over yet, but the trend is definitely going in the right direction, Salkovitz said.

"We still have four to six weeks to go, but we're past the peak of the season and nothing's happening," he said.

Weather has been the overriding factor in this year's low-ozone situation. Ozone formation requires hot, stagnant air for the pollutants to react.

But frequent cold fronts and thunderstorms have kept the air moving, slowing the chemical reaction that forms the pollutant.

There's some question as to whether or not poor economic conditions may have improved air quality. Vehicles miles traveled in Virginia have been falling for years, especially since the onset of the recession in 2007.

"It's possible that it could [be] helping," he said. "We can't quantify that yet."

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