Posted: February 28, 2013 at 10:24 pm

By Laura Clark, Kelsea Lynch, and Matthew Fouty

If you walk down Beechurst Avenue on a daily basis, you’re taking your life in your hands — and it has nothing to do with getting hit by a car.  Your health is being compromised daily by the noxious fumes emitted by all cars and trucks backed up at lights in Morgantown and by the old coal-powered plants that dot the city’s landscape.

In fact, the air pollution throughout Morgantown is so bad that the city is close to failing the air quality standards required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to city officials.  If the city falls into a category know as non-attainment, it could lose federal funding. With no federal funding, it would be difficult for Morgantown to put together a plan to meet air quality standards. The federal funds at risk here are also used to maintain the city’s roads as well as other improvement initiatives.

“If [non-attainment] happens, the EPA says we can’t use any federal money for anything other than cleaning up air quality,” said Jeff Mikorski, Morgantown’s interim City Manager.

Idling cars are just one of the many causes of air pollution. In Morgantown, traffic congestion is a growing problem.

Idling cars from Morgantown’s growing traffic congestion contribute to the city’s air pollution problem.

The main pollutant of Morgantown’s air is sulfur dioxide, which comes from the burning of coal and crude oil in coal-powered plants in and around the city, experts say. The congestion of cars and commercial vehicles that travel within city limits also contribute to the problem. Motor vehicles not only emit sulfur dioxide but other pollutants as well.

Particulate matter, or tiny particles of dust, soot and ash also pollute Morgantown’s air, according Michael McCawley, a professor at the School of Public Health at WVU. These particulates are emitted from vehicle exhaust as well as the burning of coal, and they can irritate and damage human lungs.

It [sulfur dioxide] can irritate your lungs, as will particulates. Both can cause asthma and bronchitis,” McCawley says.

Another main pollutant in Morgantown is ground level ozone, McCawley says. This ozone is created by chemical reactions from fumes released by cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Ground level ozone is what is referred to as “smog.” Ozone levels are worse on hot, sunny days, but can also be high on cold days when snow is on the ground.

Studies show that all of these pollutants can cause asthma attacks, lung disease and exacerbate heart conditions.

Children are among the most vulnerable victims of air pollution, in large part because of their faster breathing rates as well as their still-developing lungs. West Virginia has a higher percentage of children who suffer from asthma than the rest of the country, according to McCawley. He says about 25 percent of children in West Virginia have asthma compared to about eight percent nationwide.

Addressing Morgantown’s traffic problem would be the first step toward combating the city’s air pollution, Mikorski says. One possible solution would be to ban freshmen at West Virginia University from bringing their cars to campus, as many other schools do. Improving the university’s unreliable public transit systems, like the PRT and Mountainline buses, is another important step.

Limiting the number of commercial vehicles driving through Morgantown is another solution to the problem.

“We’re seeing something like 11 ,000 vehicles a day coming from commercial sectors,” says James Kotcon, a professor at the WVU School of Agriculture.

But Mikorski says the city council does not have the ability limit the number of commercial vehicles on its streets. A decision like that would have to be made at a state level, he insists. He did note that the city recently replaced all of its traffic lights with more efficient LED lights that should save the city on its electric bills.

”We have worked to reduce our carbon footprint,” Mikorski said.

Coal fired power plant in Maidsville, WV emits toxic fumes from its smoke stacks. These fumes contain chemicals like sulfur dioxide, which can cause asthma attacks and bronchitis.

Coal fired power plant in Maidsville, WV emits toxic fumes from its smoke stacks. These fumes contain chemicals like sulfur dioxide, which can cause asthma attacks and bronchitis.

The university should also consider tearing down the obsolete coal- powered plant along the Mon River. Built in 1989 over the objections of many residents, it is currently not in compliance with EPA regulations, and some researchers say it would be far cheaper for the university to get its electricity from natural gas than from burning dirty coal.

Closing the coal-powered plant along the river would also mean far fewer coal-carrying trucks lumbering through city limits, holding up traffic and spewing sulfur dioxide and diesel fumes.

City officials say it will take a combined effort of both the city and the university to truly clean up Morgantown’s air quality.

McCawley believes that individual participation is also key to improving Morgantown’s polluted air.

“I would hope that people would be smart enough on their own behalf to make where they are living much more liveable,” he said.