History

History of Air Pollution Control in Cincinnati

Cincinnati was a flourishing metropolis in the late 19th century—it was a major industrial center and a transportation hub for railroads and riverboats. As the city burgeoned, smoke from manufacturing and transportation sources irritated the community. Because Cincinnati was built in a valley surrounded by hills, coal smoke tended to lie in the basins and valleys, sometimes taking days to dissipate.

When research began to unveil the sources of smoke and its negative toll on society, grassroots efforts to create and enforce smoke control ordinances in Cincinnati became more prevalent. In 1906, the Cincinnati Women’s Club organized the establishment of the Smoke Abatement League, which quickly became one of the most influential civic organizations in the city. The League pressured City Council to pass a third smoke ordinance in 1907 which created the Office of the Chief Smoke Inspector. The Office was started with a Chief Smoke Inspector, two assistants and one clerk. This Office was the beginning of what is now the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services.

jpgManufacturing continued to play an important role during America’s entry into World War I and the continuing urbanization of Cincinnati and the Midwest. The steady passage of several smoke abatement ordinances in the early 1900s showed positive effects by the 1930s—less smoke violations were being filed and atmospheric quality improved.

In the early 1940s, the Bureau of Smoke Inspection was understaffed and overworked because two of the seven staff were called to active duty during World War II. Environmental regulations took a back seat to war production. After the war, the Bureau was finally allowed to hire four additional inspectors to handle the workload.

In October 1948, a fatal smog episode in the Pennsylvanian towns of Donora and Webster served as a wakeup call to legislators, citizens and the scientific community. Seventeen people in the steel towns died from asphyxiation and more than 1,000 others were sent to the hospital with respiratory ailments, proving that air pollution for gases, fumes and microscopic particles—not just smoke— threatened the nation’s health.

About a year later, Cincinnati held its first Clean Air Week, celebrated with banners, window displays, radio and TV spots, and newspaper coverage to raise awareness about pollution control. The event was soon adopted by other cities and came to be known nationwide as National Smoke Abatement Week.jpg

During the 50s, the increased frequency of automobile use made scientists realize vehicles were a major source of smog and air pollution. Research then flourished in atmospheric chemistry and the formation of smog. With this greater understanding of air pollution, the Bureau changed its name to the Bureau of Air Pollution Control and Heating Inspection in 1955. By 1957, an ordinance was passed that prohibited automobiles from releasing excessive smoke—police could site people with noticeable excess emissions and drivers had to have their cars tested annually for exhaust fumes.

In the 1960s, the federal government began taking a more active role in air pollution control; the first Clean Air Act of 1963 allotted $65 million to help state agencies establish air pollution control legislation. The Bureau was updated to a Division in 1965, making it the Division of Air Pollution Control and Heating Inspection under the Department of Safety.

What may be championed as the defining moment in the environmental movement occurred on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. National Smoke Abatement Week had been focused primarily on education in the past, but Earth Day represented a new kind of holiday shaped by action and activism. Shortly thereafter, legislation created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Air Act Amendments and the Clean Water Act. The environmental movement was now recognized on the national level.

The creation of the EPA in the 1970s propelled significant environmental change—more money was dispersed to local and state agencies, which meant more research. However, the “Big Brother” effect of having a national organization oversee and control local operations caused some frustration in Cincinnati. When the Ohio EPA was formed in 1972, it acted as agents for local air pollution control agencies concerning air quality issues in larger regions.

With increased funds and support from the Ohio EPA, six Continuous Air Monitoring Stations (CAMs) were established throughout the three-county area (Hamilton, Butler and Clermont counties). CAMs are modified mobile homes that house instruments to monitor seven air pollutants on a continuous basis. The CAM behind Drake Hospital, installed in 1972, was the first of its kind in the U.S.

Controlling and reducing air pollution from industrial sources was still a major concern; switching from coal to gas-powered heaters was an effective strategy for some time, but during the natural gas crisis in the late 70s, resources were so limited that in 1978 Ohio Governor James Rhodes declared an energy emergency that, among other things, allowed industries to shut off air pollution control equipment to save energy.

The Ohio EPA established a statewide Air Quality Index in 1973—the system was designed to alert the public when poor air quality might adversely affect the health of sensitive populations and the general public. By 1979, the U.S. EPA created a standard index that could be used among the nation.

Publication of pollen and mold counts began in 1986. A Rotorod sampler was used to collect pollen and mold spores daily—this same device is still used today.

Today, the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency (Agency) is part of the parent organization, Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services (Department), which also encompasses the Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste District (District). The Department is currently located at 250 William Howard Taft Road in Corryville. The director of the Department is Holly Christmann, who previously served as the Solid Waste Program Manager. The Agency handles both: Permits and Enforcement, and Monitoring and Analysis.

jpgThe Permits and Enforcement section is responsible for coordinating permits for all air emissions in Southwest Ohio, as well as responding to complaints, conducting facility inspections, and initiating noncompliance enforcement action.

The Monitoring and Analysis section is responsible for monitoring air pollutants daily and releasing data to the public. This section also conducts anti-tampering inspections, pollen and mold counts, emissions inventory programs, and stack observations and analysis.

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