Audit debate rattles air agency

What skeletons in whose closets might be rattled by an extensive financial audit of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency? Would an impartial investigation into the agency’s sketchily kept records from past years turn up evidence of greed and corruption, or merely of carelessness and lack of competent administration? Answers to these questions remained elusive after the agency’s board announced, at its Dec. 13, 1999 meeting, that the Office of the State Auditor had turned down the board’s request for a financial audit. But a heated discussion about whether the board should pursue an audit on its own made it clear that some board members have strong feelings about the APCA’s fiscal past — and Buncombe County’s role as the agency’s accountant.

“I started five years ago trying to get an audit, and it was killed by political pressure at every turn,” board member Arlis Queen asserted at the meeting.

“Still is,” interjected his wife –Taxpayers for Accountable Government Chair Rachel Queen — from the audience.

“The way the budget was handled in the past … I find it unbelievable,” board Chair Nelda Holder later told the Mountain Xpress. “The fact that nobody kept more details just blows my mind. You come on board expecting [at least] a minimal degree of savvy.” Line-item expenditures, for example, were never recorded until new Director Bob Camby changed bookkeeping procedures, to specify just what the agency’s funds are being spent on. “What [previous boards and directors] have done,” Holder continued, “is basically the minimum to meet county requirements. That’s not good enough for me and the [current] board… “

Does Holder think their vagueness might have been intentional, to cover up their own misdeeds? “The more I learn,” she answered, “the more I surmise that what happened was that, for many years, this whole agency was run like a small, owner-operated business, and they just didn’t write [a lot of things] down. When the agency got [bigger], the necessary changes weren’t instituted. Personally, I have not detected any wrongdoing or will to do wrong. But the necessary savvy to produce a record that stands up to scrutiny wasn’t there.”

At issue during the meeting was a Dec. 9 letter to Holder from State Auditor Ralph Campbell, denying the board’s request for an audit of the agency’s past financial dealings. (Last January’s procedural audit of the APCA by the state’s Division of Air Quality did not look at the agency’s finances; the board has been seeking a separate financial audit.) “It would be inappropriate for this office to conduct an audit of your agency,” reads Campbell’s letter, “insofar as the agency does not receive funds from the state.”

But Campbell wrote that letter after he’d been informed that the agency does receive a portion of state gasoline taxes, according to both Arlis Queen and Holder. When the two APCA board members met with Campbell in October, “We sat at this table and explained [to him] how much money we got [from the state],” declared Holder, who later described his statement as “mystifying.”

“That should raise a red flag,” warned Rachel Queen.

Questioned later by the Mountain Xpress, Campbell explained his reason for denying the audit: Because Buncombe County handles the APCA’s accounting, the agency is — with respect to finances — a unit of “local government,” not a state agency, and thus would need to ask the county to conduct the audit, through one of the private accounting firms that routinely audit the books of North Carolina counties, under the auspices of the Local Government Commission (a branch of the state treasurer’s office). “I tried my best to see if we’re [authorized to do the audit],” Campbell said, “[and] I appreciate their confidence in [the objectivity of] this office,” but the state lawyers he consulted confirmed that the APCA is outside the state auditor’s jurisdiction.

But Arlis Queen has made no secret of his doubts about the county’s ability to conduct an impartial audit. Previous efforts to obtain an in-depth financial audit were “killed politically by the Buncombe County manager and commissioners,” he charged last September, when the board agreed to tender its request to Campbell. Explaining, at the December meeting, why he wanted the audit to go back four years, Queen implied that the commissioners had colluded with former agency Director Jim Cody four years ago, to cover up improperly handled funding for the agency’s newly built headquarters.

Not everyone on the board, however, appeared as eager as Queen to dig up answers to what he termed “lingering questions” about the agency’s past. When he made a motion that Camby be directed to find an independent, private auditor to conduct an audit going back four fiscal years, the motion met with uncomfortable silence. Richard Maas finally seconded the motion, after he had expressed his personal doubts about whether the audit was really needed. During the ensuing discussion, Maas and Alan McKenzie — both appointed to the board in the wake of last January’s procedural audit — favored an audit going back only one fiscal year, to demonstrate the agency’s recent efforts to keep a “clean slate.” Maas worried that the expense of a four-year audit might “take money we could use to actually address air-pollution problems.”

Vehement objection to the four-year-audit proposal came from Tom Rhodarmer — the only member present at the meeting who was on the board four years ago (Don Randolph was at home recovering from heart surgery, and Doug Clark was absent without explanation). “I don’t really see the point of going back four years. We’re interested in what’s going on in the agency now. What’s gone on in the past has already happened, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.”

“I don’t think some of these things that went on in the past should be allowed to slip by,” Queen replied pointedly.

“I don’t think this agency should pay for something that I think you’re personally involved in, that you personally want to see,” Rhodarmer shot back, apparently referring to Queen’s longtime involvement with TAG, a government-spending watchdog group.

“It’s not personal with me,” countered Queen. “I just want to see some accountability here at this agency, which I’ve been asking for, Tom.”

“Let’s look at the accountability [for what we do] today,” replied Rhodarmer. “There’s nothing you can do about what happened four years ago.”

In the end, the board voted unanimously to direct Camby to obtain estimates from two private sources for audits covering one, two, three and four fiscal years from June 30, 1999, and to bring the eight estimates back to the board for a final decision. Queen “guaranteed” the board that he would get in touch with Wayne McDevitt, Gov. Jim Hunt’s chief of staff, whom Queen said had promised him that the state would pay for a financial audit.

Agency opposes state’s looser dust rules

Even though North Carolina has loosened its regulations governing how much dust may be generated at construction sites, the APCA board demonstrated its independence by retaining its older, stricter regulations governing fugitive-dust emissions. The agency will continue to respond to complaints about uncontrolled dust by dispatching an inspector to the site to issue a warning, which is followed up by a letter. If the inspector again observes dust blowing over the property line (in response to a second complaint, or in the course of his or her rounds), the offender will be issued a notice of violation on the spot.

In contrast, the state Division of Air Quality recently instituted a lengthy process requiring the state to issue oral and written notifications of a possible violation. The recipient must then submit a compliance plan. In other words, Camby told the board, an offender has up to five or six months to comply with dust regulations. “Project complete [by that time],” board member McKenzie remarked.

“This [new state rule] is so open-ended, it’s almost worthless for actually being able to control dust,” Maas complained. “And it [would put] our staff to a lot of burden and a lot of work to have to go back and forth with this, all the time that the [offending] person is not doing anything except basically stalling us, and isn’t controlling the dust. … By the time we can ever do anything, five or six months have gone by.”

Camby agreed. “If we get a complaint, and we go out there and see dust blowing across, against somebody’s house, we ought to be able to respond to that.”

Rhodarmer moved to retain the older, stricter rule, mentioning that, “We get a lot of [construction-dust] complaints, especially in summertime.” The motion passed unanimously.

But because the agency’s fugitive-dust regulations are now significantly stricter than the state’s, the APCA will have to run them by Tom Allen of the Division of Air Quality, explained board attorney Jim Siemens.

“Seems like a pretty straightforward [test case] to see how [the state] is going to deal with us on this rule-making process,” said Maas. Siemens added that this is a good example of why the board should be careful when adopting regulations “by reference” to state rules.

At the board’s next meeting (Monday, Jan. 10, 2000), Arlis Queen is expected to present a recommendation to the board, as a follow-up to a mid-December hearing on the Perry Alexander Construction Company’s dust-violation appeal. The contractor was cited last summer for failure to control dust at the new Lowe’s home-improvement-store construction site on Patton Avenue. Then-director Cody’s handling of the case was criticized by Phyllis Pendleton, a neighbor of the Lowe’s site who initiated the complaint in July (see sidebar).

Find out more at APCA Archive online

After a delay due to technical problems, the APCA Archive is now truly up and running on the Mountain Xpress Web site (mountainx.com/news/apca). This archive of articles and commentaries chronicles the last three years of tumultuous change at the small but powerful agency charged with controlling air pollution in Buncombe and Haywood counties

For more information about the Perry Alexander Construction Company dust case, click on the Archive entries dated: Sept. 2, 1998, Sept. 23, 1998 and Mar. 3, 1999.

Staff cars to run on natural gas

In keeping with its new emphasis on reducing “mobile-source” air pollution from car and truck exhaust, the agency is starting to replace worn-out vehicles in its own fleet with new, alternative-fuel vehicles. After extensively researching choices ranging from ethanol to electric to hydrogen power, staff engineer Chuck Sams recommended compressed natural gas as the most readily available alternative fuel in our region. (The Public Service Company of North Carolina, the local natural-gas provider, is even offering the fuel to cars for free at its local facility.)

Peter Dawes pointed out from the audience that the city of Asheville is planning to switch its bus fleet over to natural gas, as well, and would probably be willing to coordinate its efforts with the APCA.

But the board had difficulty choosing a particular type of vehicle, even though Sams had narrowed the field by comparing the growing variety of natural-gas-powered vehicles that are now or will shortly be on the market. (Many of these are “dual-fuel” vehicles that can run on conventional gasoline when natural gas is unobtainable.)

“It’s hard to go car-shopping here at the table,” Holder remarked.

Agency staff tentatively recommended that the agency buy one Ford Crown Victoria — the only natural-gas-fueled car that could comfortably carry six people to the out-of-state training sessions staff must frequently attend. But Maas led the board in insisting that the agency, instead, buy one or two of what appeared to be the best and most efficient — though smaller — natural-gas vehicles: the Toyota Camry (when it comes on the market, early in 2000), or the Honda Civic CNG (now available).

Board and staff eventually agreed to start by buying either one or two natural-gas Camrys or Civics as replacements for the aging cars used by inspectors to visit local sites — and, when necessary, renting a large, conventional-fuel car to attend distant meetings.

Pollution monitors are in demand

The APCA will donate two surplus ozone monitors to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which wants them for a study of ozone levels in eastern Tennessee and far western North Carolina — where pollution from automobiles and coal-fired power plants is having particularly damaging effects on the environment of the Great Smoky Mountains. The agency has replaced the older monitors with newer models that require less personnel time to operate. Four other surplus ozone monitors are being donated to Warren Wilson College and (at Maas’ request) UNCA, for training environmental-studies students.

Camby reported that, of the 10 sites the agency now monitors for ambient air pollution, four have ozone monitors, and the agency is planning to add another one. The APCA has one so-called “toxic monitor” in Buncombe County, and would like to place another one in Haywood County. These monitors capture air samples in small canisters at representative times and locations (as determined by agency engineers and state and EPA experts). The agency sends the canisters to a lab, where the sampled air is burned and its chemical contents are measured on a gas chromatograph. Maas persuaded the board to add yet another toxic monitor to the budget, citing the need to “significantly expand our ability to sample air pollution” to provide more data for studying the cumulative health and environmental effects of “background toxics” — pollutants that are now constantly present in the air we breathe.

In order to monitor the Barber Orchard site near Waynesville (recently declared a Superfund site), the APCA will move one of its particulate samplers, which has been stationed for several months at Lake Julian (the site of CP&L’s coal-fired power plant) — and which, according to Camby, “has not shown any high readings at all.”

The sampler will monitor the site several days a week (as determined by meteorological conditions) to measure any lead and arsenic made airborne during the EPA-ordered removal of pesticide-contaminated topsoil from the area. A subdivision has been built over part of the site, the former home of a commercial apple orchard.

New staff engineer

Camby introduced the board to the agency’s newest employee — engineer Shawna Riddle, who will be assigned to write work permits, do inspections and monitor compliance. She has worked for Forsythe County and for the state of South Carolina in air-pollution compliance and certification. Although new to the agency, Riddle needed no introduction to environmental-studies instructor Maas — she had been a student of his at UNCA.

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