What spatial units (city or county limits, U.S. States, regulatory regions) are in play in the space of concern? What spatial delineations offer analytic and comparative purchase?

The Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville, East Tennessee, Knox and Roane Counties have all come up as spatial units that play a role in the space of concern, each offering a unique kind of analytic and/or comparative purchase.

The Great Smoky Mountains are the longest standing and (arguably) the most famous landmark in East Tennessee. Established as a national park in 1934, the story of the Great Smoky Mountains serves as a fable for the threat of ecological degradation. As the most visited and most polluted national park in the U.S., the Smokies have become an important node in U.S. air quality science – because of pollution levels, duration of data sets, and the park's unique climate characteristics. The Smokies are part of several observational research networks that monitor air pollution. At the outset, the Smokies served as an obvious site for study because of the park's longstanding problems with ozone and the vast ecological destruction caused by pollution trafficked in from beyond the park boundaries. The Great Smoky Mountains become a spatial unit in this story because the mountains are often used as a marker for or narrative about environmental degradation. While the park is often compared to other parks (usually in reports by the National Parks Service and other government agencies), the Smokies have more analytic than comparative purchase in the story of East Tennessee because the park serves as a regional reference point, a story that communicates the environmental history and dilemmas that the region faces. In many narratives about the park there is typically reference to respiratory problems stemming from poor air quality.

Counties also figure into this ethnography. Roane county came up first in my study because it was the site of the December 2008 TVA disaster. At times the disaster site is referred to as Kingston or Harriman (impacted towns), but the county name is also used. This designation came up frequently while I worked with United Mountain Defense, although EPA agents also referred to Roane County when discussing air quality standards. The EPA evaluates air quality according to counties, which are designated as in attainment (meeting federal air quality standards) or in non-attainment (exceeding safe levels over a particular duration). Anderson, Blount, Cocke, Knox, Jefferson, Loudon, and Sevier counties (all in East Tennessee) are currently in non-attainment with EPA air quality standards. Counties are also used in public health reports, like the "Burden of Asthma in East Tennessee." These reports track prevalence rates, hospital visits, and mortality across counties, mostly because health data is generated by county offices rather than city offices (note the importance of “county” health departments and their relationship to city departments). In this regard, counties are useful spatial unit because they allow for comparison of air quality and health data.

Cities have also become an important spatial unit within this project. One of the first things that drew me to East Tennessee was Knoxville. Knoxville has been widely regarded as the asthma capital of the U.S. (and two other cities in Tennessee have made the top ten list as well). Cities are used for comparison in health studies (like the annual U.S. asthma capitals report) as well as air quality studies (such as the EPA's PM Supersites program). While useful as a comparative unit, Knoxville serves as a point that organizes the culture, politics, economy, and (health) infrastructure of East Tennessee.

Finally, East Tennessee is a regional spatial unit. The term region refers to an area that is geographically defined, often encompassing a number of smaller units. For example, the Northeast or Southeast is used to refer to a handful of states. Upstate New York is used to refer to the strip of counties above New York City. However, because regions are not defined politically, there is always some ambiguity. In the example of Upstate New York, there is ambiguity over whether the label applies to Western New York, or whether it excludes counties just above New York City, etc.
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Regions, like East Tennessee, are used to demarcate both cultural and geographic differences. East Tennessee sits closer to central Appalachia and is more mountainous, whereas Middle and Western Tennessee are flat, and more closely associated with the plains and Mississippi River basin. In Tennessee, regional differences are stark because of the landscape, and this correlates with culture. This is most obvious with regard to environmental science and regulation. East Tennessee suffers from high levels of air pollution because pollutants pour into and sit in the Tennessee Valley – an area dividing the Blue Ridge from the Cumberland Plateau. East Tennessee has also hosted the East Tennessee Ozone Study.