Asheville physician Clay Ballantine delivered a grim message during the Asheville City Council’s Feb. 18 work session: Degraded air quality is causing a health epidemic, both in Western North Carolina and nationwide.
Speaking not just to Council members but to everyone in attendance, Ballantine took off the gloves, giving an intense presentation that vividly highlighted the dangers of the dirty air we breathe. Ballantine, who serves on the Clean Air Trust Fund Advisory Board, spoke in tandem with Bob Camby of the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency, who outlined the sources of local air pollution. Both men had addressed the Buncombe County commissioners several months ago, and Council members also wanted to hear what they had to say.
Graphically describing the effects of ozone and particulate matter on the human body, Ballantine cited the many ways that bad air can hurt you.
“Ozone burns the lung linings,” he said, ticking off an ominous list of associated ailments, including asthma and respiratory infections.
“Our pollution does not dilute,” Camby emphasized. And giving the nod to a long-running local debate, he stressed that our air contains a mix of both imported and locally produced pollution.
“We are stewing in our own juices,” Ballantine declared, adding that besides the much-publicized threat of federal “nonattainment” status for ozone, the Asheville area will probably reach the same status for particulates sometime this summer.
Particulate matter — tiny, floating specks of pollution spewed into the air by, among other things, coal-fired power plants, “really gets down into your lungs,” said Ballantine, noting that “while progress is being made with cardiovascular disease and cancer, we are losing ground to lung disease.”
And adults have it comparatively easy compared to children, he continued, citing a 55-percent increase in child asthma nationwide between the late ’80s and the early ’90s. Between one-third and one-half of those cases are believed to be related to air pollution, he noted, adding that other health problems can begin even before birth. “We are limiting the lung functions of our children,” said Ballantine.
That information alone should be enough, Ballantine told Xpress later, to make the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fix every smokestack in the country. But there’s still more bad news.
The respiratory problems in question aren’t short-term; they continue, as he put it, “from the womb to the grave,” noting that the latter eventuality may come sooner than expected due to pollution-related health problems.
Those problems aren’t limited to the lungs, either, Ballantine reported. Studies show that heart-attack rates go up when air pollution is high, he said. At least a few fatal heart attacks — which account for 4 percent of U.S. deaths each year — can be attributed to air pollution.
The news is not new, but it’s no longer possible to avoid taking serious steps to address these issues, argued Ballantine.
“We need extremely thorough ‘preventive air care’ in this area,” he declared.
Smokestack scrubbers (such as those installed on CP&L’s Lake Julian plant) are a positive move, said Ballantine, but it’s been offset by continued increases in traffic volume. “I-26 and I-40 are the largest pollution generators in the French Broad River Basin,” he asserted. Ballantine urged Asheville leaders to take whatever steps they can to curb emissions from city vehicles and to demand better solutions from the state Department of Transportation.
“When it comes time to pay for asphalt, they have no problem,” he said. “But when it comes to mass transit, they tell the cities to pay for it themselves.”
Despite North Carolina’s efforts to clean up its own power plants, the uncapped smokestacks just across the border still shoot their pollutants our way.
“I want you to get this message, if nothing else,” Ballantine declared, pointing to a map of the Southeast with a red blob covering parts of several states, including most of Western North Carolina. “The red zone is the zone of air stagnation. We are almost dead center in that zone.”
And for healthy but more fiscally minded folks, Ballantine also addressed the cost of air-related health problems.
“This is the kind of thing that takes a lot of money out of the Medicaid budget,” he said, to the tune of about $100 million annually.
Ballantine defended his statistics, saying they come from respected medical journals where any scientific report is heavily scrutinized by its strongest critics. “This is not hack science,” he observed.
Nonetheless, he continued, policy-makers charged with responding to such data are turning a blind eye.
“The EPA is being weakened, and the Clean Air Act is being dismantled,” Ballantine warned. He encouraged Asheville to join a group of 10 states and assorted cities that have filed a lawsuit against the EPA, seeking to block a Dec. 31, 2002 rule change allowing “grandfathered” power plants to avoid upgrading obsolete, heavily polluting equipment. Although the deadline to join the lawsuit was Jan. 30, outside parties have until March 3 to file a “petition of review” in support of the litigation. Local environmental groups have mounted an e-mail campaign urging local decison-makers to sign on to the suit.
Sounding a more ominous note, Ballantine also suggested instituting ozone alerts that would keep children inside school buildings instead of outside at recess. Walking, he reminded Council, creates far less pollution than driving. “It’s about sidewalks; it’s about greenways,” he said. “It boils down to light switches and tailpipes.”
Council member Joe Dunn complimented Ballantine on what he called an “awesome” presentation, wondering aloud how Asheville can stem the effects of continued population growth, if at all.
And Council member Holly Jones noted that although Buncombe County is hovering on the brink of being held in nonattainment for ozone, the larger problem is the health issue at hand.
“I think sometimes, in terms of this whole nonattainment status, we lament we are so close to the edge,” she said. “But the bottom line is we have some serious health problems we have to deal with.” For her part, Jones said she would like to see the city join the EPA lawsuit.
City attorney Bob Oast said he’d contacted the state attorney general to get information about the city’s options. Oast said later that the attorney general is still evaluating the situation.
What price parking?
The cost of the new parking deck planned for Battery Park (adjacent to the Grove Arcade) has increased substantially, City Engineer Cathy Ball told Council. Major changes in the project — including the location, the size of the job, and fee increases since the work began in 2000 — have added $391,113 to the original cost of $510,000, reported Ball.
To date, Ball told Dunn, the city has paid between $200,000 and $300,000 of the total design cost.
The increase is on the consent agenda for the Feb. 25 formal session.
A report by the Citizens Campaign Finance Reform Study Committee that was to be presented by Council member Brian Peterson was postponed until the March 4 work session. The committee, said Peterson, needs to meet one more time before presenting its results.