The politics of obstruction

These days, complaining about Western North Carolina’s air quality comes dangerously close to cliche. For the past several years, residents of the region have been saturated with the disheartening news that the mountains are no longer a refuge from the heavily polluted air of more populated, low-lying urban areas such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston and New York. But causes tend to wax and wane on the political scene, especially after some action — no matter how inadequate — has been taken by the appropriate authorities.

The N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act, passed by the General Assembly in 2002, was a step in the right direction. But if one of its effects has been to fuel public complacency, then this landmark piece of legislation has done more harm than good. Because here in the mountains, our air quality remains as poor as it ever was, and the main pollution sources continue to pump nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, hydrocarbons and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

How can this be?

The Clean Smokestacks Act regulates only the 14 coal-burning power plants within North Carolina’s borders. All but one (the Lake Julian plant) lie to the east of Asheville, and the prevailing winds carry their emissions to the east and north. Most of the pollution affecting our region comes from points south, west and northwest of the Great Smoky Mountains. Therefore, in order to improve our air quality, we must somehow induce the owners of power plants and factories in other states to clean up their act. For this we depend on our state agencies — particularly the Division of Air Quality — to identify those polluting sources and advise North Carolina’s governor and attorney general about legal recourse. But if you’ll excuse the expression, don’t hold your breath.

The DAQ apparently sees its mission as balancing the needs and desires of industry with the need for a clean and healthy environment. And all too often, the scale tips in favor of industry. In fact, according to statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the DAQ prosecutes only 11 percent of air-quality violations in North Carolina — the seventh-worst enforcement record in the nation.

In terms of interstate activity, the DAQ advised the attorney general and the governor against joining a multistate lawsuit to reverse a federal rule change that weakened the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review provision — the most relevant provision in the fight to clean up the emissions of the aging power plants, factories and refineries upwind of Western North Carolina. The DAQ has refused to hold public hearings on Title V permit applications for some of the largest polluters in the state. The DAQ has advocated for legislation that would allow the construction of new factories to near completion before obtaining emission-control-system permits.

In short, the DAQ has not been the enforcement agency we need to ensure a better future for our region’s air quality. Instead, the DAQ has allowed itself to be disproportionately influenced by the very industries it’s supposed to be regulating — particularly public utilities. Anyone familiar with North Carolina politics will understand the enormous influence of Duke Energy and Progress Energy.

And while it’s to be expected that industries will do whatever they can to lobby for their own financial gain, it’s not acceptable for state agencies to act as the agents of those industries. In this case, key DAQ administrators have entered the agency, via the revolving door, directly from administrative positions within the industry. This self-serving system must change now — but it’s going to take a sustained and powerful public outcry to uproot this noxious weed. If clean air is what we want, then we need an enforcement agency that’s dedicated solely to guarding the public health and the environment.

The Canary Coalition has initiated a statewide campaign to reform the state Division of Air Quality. If you want cleaner air in Western North Carolina in your lifetime and the lifetimes of your children and grandchildren, please join us in this vital effort.

[Avram Friedman is executive director of the Canary Coalition, a nonpartisan, broad-based grassroots clean-air movement that originated in Sylva, N.C., in the year 2000 and now has more than 600 members in 21 states throughout the Appalachian region. For more information, visit www.canarycoalition.org or call toll-free 866-4CANARY.]

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