Posted: December 5, 2015 at 8:01 pm

By Robert Lee and Elisha Wagoner

Morgantown residents are exposed to high levels of toxic particles in the air emitted by coal-powered plants and the diesel trucks so ubiquitous on the city’s downtown streets. These microscopic particles can have harmful effects on people, according to several researchers at West Virginia University.

“These fine particles do lead to very high levels of mortality,” says James Kotcon, associate professor of plant and soil sciences at West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture.

Even short-term exposure can be risky, because such ultra-fine particles can damage lungs and cause cancer, the American Lung Association has found. Such pollutants can also increase the chance of developing asthma and exacerbate existing breathing problems, particularly in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the American Lung Association.

Michael McCawley, interim chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at West Virginia University, has been studying ultra-fine particles in regions of West Virginia where surface mining occurs. But McCawley says that anywhere where there’s a lot of traffic or diesel generators, people are exposed to high levels of ultra-fine particle pollution, according to a recent WV Broadcasting report.

McCawley recently gave a talk to the Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition, during which he reported measuring ultra-fine particles on selected streets in downtown Morgantown.  He said he found these particles in sufficiently high concentrations to be of concern, according to Duane Nichols, coordinator of the Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition.

Coal-powered plants can release hydrogen oxide, that can interact with the moisture in the air to form the ozone, which causes breathing problems, exacerbates asthma and is a potent agent that can be detrimental to the lining in lungs.

Coal-powered plants emit fine particulates and other pollutants that can damage lungs and cause cancer.

Morgantown officials currently monitor harmful particles in the air, but only at one site, according to Renu Chakrabarty, air toxics coordinator with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Agency. This monitor is located at one of the city’s highest points, Morgantown Municipal Airport, which has an elevation of 1,248 feet.

During the ’80s and 90s, the city used two monitors to track air pollution, but only one exists today, Chakrabarty said.

As a result, monitors may be not picking up dangerously high levels of ultra-fine particles present in heavily trafficked low points in Morgantown, such as Beechurst Avenue.

“The city of Morgantown could see some real benefits from [more monitoring], especially in downtown areas where we see a lot of truck traffic.” Kotcon says.

Morgantown City Manager Jeff Mikorski says that air quality assessments are not the city’s responsibility. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is the agency responsible for such monitoring, he says.

However, state officials are not “politically aligned” to look for air pollution problems, Nichols says.

Several years ago, the air pollution was so bad in parts of Morgantown, which lies in a valley that traps smog, that the city came close to violating EPA air quality standards, according to an article published on the Mountaineer News Service. At that time, Mikorski acknowledged that if Morgantown’s air quality fell below EPA standards, the city would not be allowed to use any of the federal funding it receives for anything other than cleaning up air pollution. 

As measured at the airport, Morgantown’s air quality stays within EPA limits most of the year with the exception of summer when the standards are exceeded a few days out of the season, according to Kotcon.

Ultrafine particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter originate from industrial fossil fuel combustion and diesel trucks. These particles are so small they are not visible to the human eye. Yet they are still present in the black smoke emitted by large diesel trucks as they rumble by. These particles remain aloft in the air for a substantial amount of time due to their tiny size, Nichols said.

Last year, Morgantown city officials attempted to ban big trucks from downtown streets, but the ban was challenged in court by several trucking companies. A judge in Kanawha County overturned the ban last December, but the city is appealing the ruling, Mikorski says.

In the meantime, Mikorski says that city officials are trying to convince local trucking companies to voluntarily reroute their trucks to Greenbag Road instead of traveling through the heart of the downtown on State Highway 7, otherwise known as Walnut Street.

truck pic 1

Diesel truck emissions release harmful air pollutants such as ultra-fine particles, which can cause cancer and lung disease from short term exposure.

Given that the coal-powered plant on Beechurst supplies WVU’s energy needs, Morgantown City Council member Nancy Ganz says the university should play a bigger role in combating air pollution.

“It seems that WVU could take a lead in monitoring stuff like this,” she says.

McCawley is expected to release a final report on his findings in February, Nichols says. At that point, he hopes that state and local officials will start by doing something about the diesel trucks going through Morgantown.

“If you live near roadways, you’re potentially exposed to a higher concentration than if you live further away from a major roadway with a lot of truck traffic,” Chakrabarty says.

Many diesel trucks are transporting coal to the coal-powered plant on Beechurst Avenue. So as long as that plant, which supplies West Virginia University’s electricity needs and also emits air pollution, remains open, diesel trucks will have to travel along University and Beechurst avenues.

“Every five to fifteen minutes a truck passes through downtown,” Nichols said. “People need to be protected as they walk along those sidewalks. We shouldn’t subject them to known risks like this.”