Recent attempts to undermine air-quality protections at both the federal and state levels could increase health risks for North Carolina residents, especially those with asthma and other lung conditions.
Earlier this month, seven Southern states joined other states in filing a brief urging a federal court to delay a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule regulating mercury emissions. The EPA introduced the proposal, known as the Utility MACT Rule, back in March after more than 20 years of delays and revisions, aiming to set the first national standards for emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants by coal-fired power plants. Under the most recent court order, the EPA must finalize the rule by Dec. 16; but the objecting states say they need more time, asserting that the power grid’s reliability is at risk. Meanwhile, the EPA declined to issue new rules governing ozone — a major contributor to smog in Western North Carolina — until at least 2013.
Yet industry data reveal that in 2010 alone, regulated facilities pumped more than 34 million pounds of toxic substances into North Carolina’s air. Nearly 1.5 million pounds of them were cancer-causing chemicals — including many covered by the Utility MACT Rule.
Western North Carolina industry contributed substantially to the state’s total burden of toxic air releases, according to the data they’re required to report. One of the top polluters statewide is Blue Ridge Paper in Canton, which released a long list of toxins (including benzene, arsenic, formaldehyde, mercury and lead) into the air. Prevailing winds may carry some of those toxics (which totaled more than 2 million pounds last year) to Buncombe County.
North Carolina isn’t one of the states seeking the rule delay. But in a meeting in Raleigh late last month, the N.C. Environmental Review Commission continued to consider how to develop legislation that would restrict or eliminate the state’s Air Toxics Program.
The commission sets the Legislature’s environmental agenda, and like the N.C. General Assembly as a whole, the group now has a Republican majority. Many of these lawmakers have stressed their commitment to ferreting out what they see as unnecessary duplication in state and federal statutes regulating businesses; environmental rules have been repeatedly cited as a particular impediment to commerce.
Rep. Mitch Gillespie, the commission’s co-chair, has said he intends to rewrite state air-toxics regulations. And when the commission was reviewing the even larger amount of such substances released statewide in 2007, the McDowell County Republican flat-out rejected the information, declaring, “I know there’s not 38 million pounds of pollution in the air. That’s not reasonable to me,” WRAL reported.
Reasonable or not, in Haywood County alone, industries reported releasing more than 2 million pounds of toxic substances into the air last year — the fourth-highest total among the state’s 100 counties. Buncombe County industries released more than 250,000 pounds of chemicals that, with sufficient exposure, are associated with cancer, genetic mutations, birth defects, respiratory illness, heart attacks and premature death.
Blue Ridge Paper accounted for most of Haywood County’s total. Buncombe County’s two biggest polluters in 2010, both in Arden, were Day International, a printing-and-packaging operation on Glenn Bridge Road (208,000 pounds) and Progress Energy’s coal-fired power plant (47,000 pounds).
Blue Ridge Paper is one of a number of companies that have recently sought relief from state air-quality rules. In an April 17 letter, Blue Ridge Paper told legislators: “South Carolina and other states have recognized this duplication…and have modified their air-toxics rules. … North Carolina businesses need similar regulatory relief.”
And state legislative leaders are listening. Following last month’s commission meeting, Gillespie told WRAL, “I’ve heard a lot from the business community complaining about the air-toxics laws, about how burdensome and expensive they are, and how N.C. goes way beyond what other states around us do, and [how] that hurts us competitively.”
Nonetheless, “The health of our citizens should come first, and then you look at the business concerns and the cost, and try to find a balance,” Gillespie told Xpress, saying he hopes to find broad buy-in for his efforts to soften air-toxics rules. “I’ll get votes from Democrats on air toxics,” he predicts, maintaining that the changes will be minor. “In the end, I’ll offer legislation 100 folks [in the Statehouse] can support.”
But a lot of what Gillespie and his colleagues call needless duplication is aimed at safeguarding state residents’ health when the federal standards fail to do so, environmentalists point out. State air-toxics standards that are higher than federal limits “are based on increased health risks,” notes attorney Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. “It’s all based on accepted levels of exposure designed to ensure that the public is protected. North Carolina has always done better, and we should continue … putting the health of citizens first.”
“We agree that it’s not reasonable that there should be 38 million pounds of toxins released into the air,” continues Carter. “The interesting thing, which Rep. Gillespie has now learned, is this data comes from industry. It’s not environmental groups, it’s not government. … These numbers are provided by the federal toxic-release-inventory requirements, [under] a public right-to-know law.”
Carter also takes aim at legislators looking to weaken such laws. “Politicians who reduce or repeal limits on toxic air pollution knowingly increase the risk for all North Carolina residents of cancer and other serious — even deadly — health problems,” he points out. “Children, pregnant women and senior citizens are most vulnerable to toxic air pollution and face the greatest risk from irresponsible political attacks on clean-air protections.”
— To view state data on toxic air releases by permitted facilities in North Carolina, go to http://avl.mx/6r. Send your local environmental news and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 251-1333, ext. 153.