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If the air seems a little fresher, and the sky looks a little bluer in Erie County these days, that’s because it is.

For the second consecutive year, the county’s air quality received across-the-board passing grades from the American Lung Association, which released its annual 2013 State of the Air report Wednesday.

The findings mirror national trends showing air quality is improving overall. According to the lung association, the survey shows that stricter state and federal environmental regulations on air quality like the Clean Air Act, in tandem with heightened public awareness of the problem, are making a difference.

“From a clean air perspective, it shows we’re having less and less unhealthy levels of air pollution over more and more parts of the country,” said Michael Seilback, a lung association vice president.

The report showed the Buffalo Niagara region scored almost right in the middle – 139th out of 277 metropolitan areas – for “high ozone days” and likewise in the middle one-third for both short-term and year-round “particle pollution.” Those pollution particles are generated primarily through vehicle exhaust and smoke stack emissions.

The report gave Erie County an overall grade of “B” for both high ozone – “smog” – days and short-term air pollution based on a standard Air Quality Index formula that ranks the level of air pollution on a six-category scale ranging from 0 to 500. The index tracks smog and air pollution particulate from “ash, vehicle exhaust, soil, dust, pollen and other pollution.”

The best air quality, for instance, which is classified as “good,” has a numeric value between 0 and 50 and is color-coded green, whereas “hazardous” air falls between values of 301 to 500 and is classified as “Code Maroon.” The middle ranges include moderate (yellow), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), unhealthy (red) and very unhealthy (purple).

From 2009 to 2011, the most recent years data has been compiled by the association, Erie County experienced two days labeled as Code Orange, which is considered air that is unhealthy for children, active adults and people with respiratory disease.

By the lung association’s weighted comparison, there are 8.5 fewer annual unhealthy days of smog in Erie County from when it began tracking them in 1996 and an even more dramatic reduction from the peak average of nearly 23 unhealthy days annually dating back to 2001-2003. Erie County has passed the lung association’s test for smog in each of the last two years.

“Certainly, it’s welcome news for a community that’s disproportionately adversely affected by pollution,” said Brian P. Smith of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “It certainly shows that legislation like the Clean Air Act will work when implemented and enforced.”

The amount of annual particle air pollution in Erie County is also trending lower. The county received a passing grade for the fourth year in a row in the lung association’s report.

Niagara County, which experienced three unhealthy smog days over the three-year report period, was given a “C” rating by the lung association. Chautauqua County, meanwhile, received an “F” in the report, falling just short of a passing grade, due to 10 reported “Code Orange” ozone days during that period.

Chautauqua County has never received a passing grade in the 14 years the lung association has assembled the report. On the other hand, the number of ozone days there have dropped in seven of its last eight reports.

Seilback admitted weather patterns can affect ozone pollution, but explained the presence of a coal-burning power plant on the shores of Lake Erie in Dunkirk certainly isn’t helping Chautauqua County’s air.

“Dunkirk is one of a handful left of the old, dirty coal plants in New York State,” Seilback said. “While it’s being used less, it’s still a major source” of air pollution.

On a national level, the region most typically associated with smog – Southern California – still remains bad.

Seilback attributes much of Buffalo Niagara’s improved air quality – as well as around the state – to cleaner-burning fuel used in cars, trucks and for heating as well as mandating tougher standards for emissions and stricter regulations on open burning.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com