Growing up in Hendersonville, Ashley Featherstone assumed she would move away for work. “I was always told that you could never find a job here,” she recalls. “There are [fewer] jobs here than there are in places like Atlanta and Charlotte. But I just decided that I was going to find a job.”
And she did: Featherstone is the director of the Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency based in Asheville.
After studying at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, Featherstone worked for several companies before resettling in Western North Carolina. She began working in 2002 with the then-named Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency. She became director in 2020; the agency renamed itself in 2021.
Featherstone spoke with Xpress about the ozone, the finer points of fine particulates and why you should never burn your trash.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What constitutes good air quality?
Most importantly, we must be in compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Here in the southeast, we’re most concerned with our ground level ozone and fine particulate matter. Over the years, our air quality has been getting better. The standards get adjusted every few years because we keep finding health effects at lower and lower levels of air pollution. So even though our quality is improving, there’s always more work to be done.
What does “ground-level ozone” mean? I thought the ozone was high up in the sky.
Ozone up in the stratosphere above the Earth forms a protective barrier that helps protect us from the harmful rays of the sun. Ozone at ground level is actually very reactive. It can exacerbate asthma and other breathing conditions. Ozone is what we call a secondary air pollutant. Instead of being emitted directly from pollution sources, it’s formed in the atmosphere when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds combine in the presence of heat and sunlight.
So what is “fine particulate matter”?
The fine particulate matter is emitted directly from sources like combustion, whether you’re burning diesel fuel or wood. You can also get fine particles from road dust and other sources like that. Those are significant health concerns, as very fine particles can cause all kinds of breathing problems that exacerbate other conditions like heart disease and COPD.
Also, fine particles are related to visibility. In the summertime when you can’t see the mountains or buildings very well that haze is water molecules in the air attaching to a fine particle and expanding. We’ve got better visibility down in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and everywhere around here in the southeast. That’s good news because tourism is important, and people from Atlanta want to come here for the weekend to see the beautiful mountains.
Can the community get involved with the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency?
We have our governing board with appointees from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and Asheville City Council. We also have a Citizens Advisory Committee, which is made up of a diverse group of residents from the area. We’re working with this group of folks to identify projects in the community to reduce emissions and [create] awareness about air quality initiatives. Right now, we’ve been advertising for advisory committee members and taking applications. One thing we are engaging with our advisory committee is [seeing if we] can partner up with other organizations in the area that are also seeking to reduce pollution and take advantage of some of the grant funds that are out there.
Can people contact the agency to report polluted air?
Part of why we’re here is to address any concerns that people have about air pollution. They can call us if they have questions about air pollution, and we investigate a wide variety of complaints. Sometimes people don’t know who to call when they’re having these problems. We have a fugitive dust rule, where you’ll see a lot of particulate matter or dust from construction sites. We also get a lot of odor complaints and [concerns about] open burning compliance. We’ve had so many improvements in air quality over the last 20 or 30 years.
What has been your proudest achievement working at the agency?
The community partnerships and programs that we’ve done have been really fun. For instance, we did a school bus retrofit and a fire engine retrofit. Since we got good feedback on those, we were able to get grants to equip these bus and fire engine diesel engines with diesel oxidation catalysts (DOCs). The DOCs have been EPA-verified to reduce particulate matter emissions by 20%, hydrocarbon emissions by 66%, and carbon monoxide emissions by 41%. Engines manufactured after 2007 have these and other control devices installed on them at the factory. Many of these engines operate for 20 years so retrofitting pre-2007 engines was a priority between 2003 and 2013.
What’s the weirdest or worst thing that you’ve ever heard of someone trying to burn?
Unfortunately, people burn all kinds of stuff. One of the troubling things is copper wire. You see a lot of people burning copper wire because there’s a plastic coating on it. If they burn the plastic off, that gets them down to the metal that they can then sell. Of course, tires are terrible to burn. Lots of times we go out and find people burning furniture, mattresses, tires, clothes — just household garbage in general.
Think about what’s in our garbage nowadays — all the plastics, dioxins and mature carcinogens. A family of four burning their trash in one barrel puts out more pollution than a municipal waste incinerator burning waste for many households! That’s because municipal waste incinerators are highly regulated with control devices and proper combustion.
What’s one simple thing you like to do to be more sustainable?
Combining trips when driving and turning off lights and other devices when not in use to save energy. I also take my own bags to the grocery store and try to avoid using plastic bags for produce. I frequent the Hard 2 Recycle events with Asheville GreenWorks and recently signed up for the food scraps drop-off program that the City of Asheville and Buncombe County have initiated.