Environment: Ozone Alert- Northwest- Aug. 2003
The area's air quality readings through the 1990s hovered just below acceptable Environmental Protection Agency levels.
With new EPA standards now threatening to put the area in "nonattainment" -- meaning development could be restricted until acceptable levels are reached -- state and local officials are searching for ways to improve air quality.
Ground-level ozone is produced when volatile organic compounds combine with nitrogen oxide in heat and sunlight. Gulf Coast towns from New Orleans to Panama City are affected by weather patterns that make ground-level ozone a common problem. The hot, still air of late spring through summer and the prevailing wind patterns cause ozone to build up and move east slowly along the coastline.
Too much ozone causes respiratory problems in humans and is bad for business too, causing agricultural and commercial timber yields to drop. Increased nitrogen levels add to pollution in the bays.
Since nitrogen oxide is the limiting factor in the chemistry of ozone production, the Department of Environmental Protection has focused on reducing nitrogen oxide emissions in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. While data show automobiles and other mobile sources account for more than 50% of NOx, the DEP has focused on "point source" polluters -- single stationary sources such as power plants.
Last year, the DEP scored its biggest victory when Gulf Power agreed to add $200 million in pollution controls to the company's Escambia County Crist plant. The power company accounts for 57% of point source nitrogen oxide in the two-county area, and the controls should reduce that amount by more than 60% over the next four years. In addition, local officials have organized public education campaigns encouraging drivers to car pool, use public transportation and keep their vehicles in good condition.
If the effort is successful, leaders will still have to be on guard because of the area's proximity to other states. "Even if Florida does everything that needs to be done, pollution from Mississippi and Alabama still goes offshore, cooks over the Gulf and comes back to us," says Howard Rhodes, DEP air resources management division director.
Still, lower-than-normal ozone averages in the relatively cooler, wetter summers of 2001 and 2002 have officials optimistic that at the end of 2003, the three-year level will meet EPA standards.
Meanwhile, business leaders watch the skies and take a pragmatic point of view. "Atlanta has been in nonattainment for years, but it hasn't really slowed them down any," says Mike Frey, vice president of economic development for the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce. He's quick to add, though, "We'd prefer not to get to that point."
IN THE NEWS
Bay County -- A group of business and community leaders has formed Partners in Progress to support the controversial relocation of the Panama City/Bay County International Airport onto land donated by St. Joe Co.
Chipley -- Following its vote earlier this year to sell the financially struggling Northwest Florida Community Hospital, the Washington County Commission has entered negotiations with Sacred Heart Health System.
Jefferson County -- After an 18-month search for a new site, the county has begun constructing a $17.2-million high school, scheduled to open a year from now, to replace its current facility.
CNN founder and Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner has declared permanent residence in Florida at his Avalon plantation.
Leon County -- Commissioners have dedicated $1.2 million annually in property tax funding for the county's primary healthcare program, which provides urgent-care facilities for poor and uninsured residents and healthcare in places other than emergency rooms. The program was created in January 2001, and an initial audit shows the program delivered a 6:1 return on investment through cost savings.
Navarre Beach -- Florida's newest state park, the 130-acre, $6.5-million Navarre Beach State Park, is scheduled to open in the early fall despite budget restrictions that have postponed construction of fishing and leisure piers and a planned underwater marine sanctuary.
Niceville -- Just 3 years old, charter school Collegiate High School at Okaloosa-Walton Community College is the highest-scoring "A" high school in Florida based on FCAT scores.
Panama City -- The 43rd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base will begin receiving 17 F/A-22 Raptor aircraft this summer, prompting $36 million in facility construction for a program that will create about 200 military jobs with an estimated $8.9 million annual economic impact on Bay County.
Panama City Beach -- Resort Investments of Destin plans to build the Mandalay Beach Resort, a $50-million 140-unit condominium/hotel.
Tallahassee -- Fannie Mae has established the North Florida Partnership Office to implement a five-year, $10-billion investment plan to provide affordable housing to more than 100,000 families in 36 north Florida counties. The partnership is the company's third in Florida.
After years of legal battles, the Leon County Commission has approved court settlements with several homeowners associations that help protect the rural roads and lakes of the Bradfordville area from development.
A $1-million gift from the Wayne and Pat Hogan Family Foundation to the Florida State University College of Law will enable the college to increase from 30 to 60 the number of undergraduate students in its summer law program, which targets groups underrepresented in the legal community.
Florida State University will implement an across-the-board 8.5% tuition increase this fall, with an additional 2.5% increase on graduate, law and medical programs and 6.5% increase on out-of-state tuition.
Walton County -- Commissioners agreed to drop a lawsuit against Okaloosa County after the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization voted to make widening U.S. Highway 98 to six lanes a top priority, thus easing congestion at the county line and avoiding development caps along the highway.
PERRY -- Recruiting difficulties have inspired Doctors' Memorial Hospital to provide full Florida State University medical school scholarships, worth about $60,000 each, to three local students who promise to return to Perry to practice for at least four years. Hospital administrators estimate they spend $200,000 to $300,000 to recruit an outside physician to the rural area, and it has been 50 years since a local resident has become a doctor and returned to Perry to practice. Jackson Hospital in Marianna has provided a similar scholarship to one student.