Professor was right about ozone

 
 

Perhaps the first individual in this region whom I ever heard issue warnings about the nature of the air

quality of this region was Howard Dunn, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern

Indiana. 

 

The year was 1972.  I was a sophomore biology student at Indiana State University--Evansville and was hoping

to someday apply for dental school. 

 

One of the trial-by-fire courses which students destined for advanced study were expected to do well in was Organic

Chemistry.  Frequently, when students would have a few minutes after completing their laboratory assignments, Dunn

could be overheard in his quiet, jocular, matter-of-fact matter emphasizing how important it was for us to be concerned

about air and water quality.

 

Many years before "ozone alert" became a household phrase, the good doctor would talk about photo-chemical

reactions of nitrogen oxides which are emitted by power plants and other industrial facilities and volatile organic

compounds similar to those which we handled in the laboratory. 

 

Some of these chemicals were so dangerous to human health that we were required to wear safety goggles and

handle the materials beneath glass-fronted exhaust hoods. 

 

I earned an honest C in Dunn's Organic Chemistry course.  While it wasn't a fabulous grade, it represented hard work

and I was quite proud of it. 

 

Several years later, I moved to Washington, D.C. and found myself working for a small newspaper on Capitol

Hill. 

 

While never really considering myself an ardent environmentalist, in 1979 I became concerned about the future

of the nuclear power industry. 

 

During a hearing I attended of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, it was revealed that the

United States had no hard-and-fast plan for the disposal of high-level nuclear wastes (it still does not). 

 

Defense contractors, power companies and federal research laboratories had for some time been stockpiling

them on-site near various installations across the country.

 

During the hearing, for some strange reason, I remembered Dr. Dunn's warnings about the pollution being

created by coal fired power plants. 

 

My mind fast-forwards to just a few years ago, when I returned to Evansville.

 

I encountered Dunn on the USI campus, and he took me to the ham radio shack at the newly constructed

technology building. He was encouraging students to get involved in shortwave radio operation. 

 

We didn't talk much about the environment, but he did allow that he had recently purchased a vacation

home near Kentucky Lake, where he spends most of his time during the summer to escape the bad air

around here.

 

Others later told me that he had persistently attempted to impress upon local decision makers about the

health risks of ozone, to little avail. 

 

They said that he apparently had grown weary of the fight and had somewhat withdrawn from local air quality

discussions.

 

Then, two years ago, in the course of meetings of the local Action Committee for Ozone Reduction Now

(ACORN) air quality officials with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) were urged by members

of the group to locate an ozone air quality monitor somewhere in Posey County to measure ambient ozone concentrations

up-wind of Evansville. 

 

Valerie West, president of Save Our Land and Environment, turned again to Dunn to ask where the monitor should

be located. 

 

He suggested somewhere near the Posey-Vanderburgh County line in the relatively isolated vicinity of the rural settlement

of St. Phillip.

 

IDEM located the monitor shack in a bean field near St. Phillip, and -- lo and behold -- it is registering the highest number

of violations of the new ozone standard (0.85 parts per million within an eight-hour period) being adopted by the Environmental

Protection Agency.

 

This demonstrates, beyond a shadow of doubt, that ozone is a regional problem and that the source of much of the pollution

which Vanderburgh County residents and businesses are being asked to address are located far upwind of Evansville.

 

All of this seems to have been lost on IDEM officials, who recently approved the construction permit for Con Agra, which will

further do violence to the air quality of this region. 

 

The plant will dump at least 937 tons of hexane -- a colorless, volatile, explosive liquid -- into the atmosphere every year.

 

At the same time, the two-week-long ozone alert periods we have had lately vindicate the arguments which Dunn has been

making for many, many years. 

 

As a brilliant organic chemist, and the senior prophet of the local environmental community, Dunn is owed a debt of gratitude. 

 

We all have much to learn from his knowledge, wisdom and observations.

 

David Coker is an Evansville free-lance writer.