Cleanest air on record: Pandemic accelerates long-term move toward cleaner air in N.C.

When President Richard Nixon ‘s signature on the Clean Air Act of 1970 prompted North Carolina to create its Division of Air Quality, air quality was bad in Western North Carolina.

“Back in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, once summer hit your mountains would disappear,” recalled Jim Renfro, longtime air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “You’re outside in the valley looking up, and you couldn’t see the mountains through the haze.”

In one of the true environmental success stories of the past century, the situation has improved dramatically since then — and as 2020 fades into 2021, it’s expected to keep getting better.

“Without a doubt we are seeing the lowest ambient air pollution levels that have been recorded since the inception of our program,” said N.C. Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas. “That’s wonderful news, testament to all of our good work, advancements in technology, regulatory and non-regulatory measures. North Carolinians are definitely breathing the cleanest air that they have anytime during their lifetimes.”

Data from the early days of the pandemic — March and April — show reductions of about 30 to 50 percent in vehicle miles driven as compared to 2019 figures. For the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2020 traffic counts at the DAQ’s roadside site in the Research Triangle Park, one of the busiest stretches of road in North Carolina, were down an average of 26.8 percent compared to the same period in 2019, Abraczinskas said.

It appears that this drastic reduction in time on the road is leading to a noticeable improvement in air quality.

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