Just a little cloud still hanging over us

After a heated duel between two of its members — and a dramatic change of heart by a third — the board of the Air Pollution Control Agency voted at its Jan. 10 meeting to continue seeking an in-depth, multi-year financial audit. A lingering public perception of corruption in the agency’s recent past was the crucial factor that swayed the split vote 3-2 in favor of an independent audit going back four fiscal years.

The fireworks began after Director Bob Camby gave the board the cost estimates he had been asked to obtain from local accounting firms. The estimates ranged from $5,000 per year for a routine audit up to $15,000 per year “if fraud is suspected.” Speaking as the board member who “brought this up,” Arlis Queen said, “I don’t know if there’s fraud or not; but if [the accountants we hire] find fraud, or suspicion of fraud, then they ought to go ahead and detail” their findings.

“You say you don’t know if there’s fraud,” responded longtime board member (and former board chair) Doug Clark, “[so] you just want to go on a fishing expedition.” Arguing tenaciously against the need for an audit, on the grounds that, “Our books have [already] been audited, just like anyone else” whose accounts are maintained by Buncombe County, Clark went on to cite a list of the awards the county has won for excellence in accounting. He also asserted that no one has taken up the challenge he’d issued a year or so ago, to bring “any reason to suspect any impropriety or illegal actions on the part of this agency or board … before the board, or take it to the district attorney.”

“Doug, you’re a businessman,” Queen fired back. “Would you go out and buy a multi-million-dollar business, and not do an audit before you bought that business?” The county’s auditors had merely scanned the agency’s figures, asserted Queen. He mentioned a recent conversation with N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt’s chief of staff, Wayne McDevitt, who, Queen said, suggested that the board hire a nonlocal firm — perhaps from Greenville or Spartanburg — to check the agency’s books for at least the last four years. “It would look much better [for] this board to ask for this audit … because [the state is] going to do it anyway,” he said the official had warned him. [See box.]

Clark then put Camby on the hot seat. “Do you have any reason to suspect anything [was] amiss [before your appointment]?”

“I was not involved with the budget preparation during the three years I was here, but … no, I have not seen anything. Now, I’ve heard rumors,” Camby acknowledged.

Some of those rumors were later repeated by former Mountain Sentinel reporter Bob Gettys, during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Gettys claimed that — before the agency’s recent overhaul — employees had received improper gifts, falsified time records, driven agency cars home at night, and worked on private jobs for board members. He confirmed Queen’s assertion that, until three years ago, the board had never approved or allowed questions on details of the director’s budget, but had simply rubber-stamped it, without examination.

The turning point in the debate — and a pivotal victory for members of the environmental community who have sought more public accountability from the air-pollution board — came when Richard Maas spoke out. At last month’s meeting, Maas and Alan McKenzie, the board’s most recent appointees, had both expressed misgivings about diverting agency funds that could be spent on air-pollution control to pay for an expensive four-year audit. Maas was appointed to finish the term of a board member who resigned in the wake of the agency’s recent troubles; that term is about to expire. But Maas made it clear that he had been wrestling with his conscience.

“I’m in a little bit of a dilemma,” he said, “because I think that our emphasis needs to be on moving forward, in a positive light. But … I’ve spent a lot of the afternoon polling some of the people in the community that … have taken an interest in this board. … Although there is now a community opinion that we are operating very appropriately and moving forward to deal with our air-quality problems in a very positive way, there’s still a feeling that it would be wise for us to really get the slate clean — to go back and do an [in-depth] audit. … There’s a community perception that, if we are not willing to do this audit, that somehow we’re still hiding something. I don’t think that we are, but … I would like to see all of us moving together forward to really deal with the air-quality issues in our community. And my perception is that we still have just a little cloud hanging over us with the community, that we could really dissipate by showing our openness and going ahead with this [four-year audit].”

The firefight continued a little longer, but the tide had turned. Eventually, Maas made a motion to seek bids for a four-year audit from firms throughout the region — not just in Asheville or Buncombe County. The final moment of suspense came when McKenzie — acting as chairman while Nelda Holder was home with the flu (Don Randolph was also absent) — took the vote: Two were in favor (Maas and Queen), two were opposed (Clark and Tom Rhodarmer). McKenzie broke the tie with a quiet, “Yes.”

Maas up for re-appointment; Holder re-elected

Camby reminded the board that Maas’ term expires Feb. 1. Maas — an environmental-studies instructor at UNCA who was an outspoken critic of the previous board’s enforcement of air-quality regulations — was appointed by the Buncombe County commissioners last July to serve out the term of Ron Boone, who resigned in the wake of the state’s highly critical procedural audit of the agency. Camby said he had asked Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene to remind the commissioners to re-appoint Maas — if that is what they decide to do — at their next meeting.

The board voted unanimously to re-elect Holder as board chair and Randolph as vice chair. Earlier in the evening, a long-standing controversy about the chairmanship was settled once and for all. Attorney Jim Siemens informed the board that, although the March 1970 “joint resolution” by which the city of Asheville and Buncombe and Haywood counties created the air agency does specify that the chairmanship would rotate among appointees of the three bodies, that resolution is superseded by a Jan. 13, 1995 “interlocal agreement,” which makes no such stipulation. This interpretation, he said, is now reflected in the agency’s bylaws.

Maas proposed, and the board unanimously approved, two more appointees to the Advisory Committee: George Bond, director of the Buncombe County Health Center, and Karin Heiman, a consulting biologist who specializes in the effects of air pollution on ecosystems. Because of a family illness, Grant oodge resigned from chairing the committee, which must now select a new chairperson.

At its February meeting, the board will discuss creating two college-level internships — one in pollution monitoring, and one in public relations and policymaking.

New portable monitor; confusing vapors

The board authorized Camby to buy a portable VOC (volatile organic compounds) monitor for $9,000 that can track toxic and hazardous air pollutants — what the agency calls “TAPS and HAPS.” The state-of-the-art monitor, manufactured by Xon Tech, weighs only 14 pounds, is powered by battery or line voltage, and can sample both upwind and downwind.

VOCs were the subject of a disagreement between Maas and agency engineer Chuck Sams, who made a presentation to the board on the projected costs and benefits of requiring vapor-control technology at local gas stations. The carcinogenic VOC vapors can be prevented from escaping into the atmosphere when gasoline is pumped, but the solution isn’t cheap. Journalist Peter Dawes, a gas-station owner, told the board that “Stage I” recovery — in which the captured fumes are piped back into the tanker truck as it fills the station’s underground tank — is a problematic solution, because truckers refuse to drive with a tank full of potentially explosive fumes. Sams said that studies have shown “Stage II” recovery (capturing the fumes as they escape from the tanks to the station’s underground tank) to be more effective in reducing VOC-related cancer rates. Installing the technology at all the gas stations in Buncombe and Haywood counties (at a projected cost of $4.1 million) would cut VOC emissions by 3,601 tons over three years. But a comparable reduction, said Sams, could be achieved by replacing 178 gas-fueled vehicles with cars running on compressed natural gas.

Maas, however, rejected this comparison, saying that VOC fumes in a gas-powered car’s fuel tank are burned away during fuel combustion, anyway; the real concern, he said, is when the fumes escape into the atmosphere, at the pump. “I think you’re off by a factor of 500 to 1,000 in your analysis,” Maas told Sams. When it became clear that the two were not seeing eye to eye, McKenzie stopped the lengthy, technical discussion and tabled it till the next meeting.

Black smoke and blue flame — CP&L and the county landfills

During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Jerry Rice expressed concern about extremely dark smoke coming from CP&L’s Lake Julian power plant — a sign, said Rice, that the company is once again burning a different type of coal. Agency staffer David Brinkman said he is aware of the smoke, but that the emissions appear to be within legal limits. Queen asked Camby whether the agency’s portable monitor — which was stationed near the plant until last month, when it was moved to the Barber Orchard Superfund site, to help the EPA monitor soil removal — could be moved back. But Camby said the stacks are so high that the ground-level monitor cannot accurately gauge the emissions. Maas asked the staff about CP&L’s self-monitoring process (the agency’s only regular source of data on the plant’s emissions), and was told that the company submits quarterly reports. Any violation of opacity limits must be reported to the agency within 48 hours; the APCA board can also impose further requirements.

The board approved Title V permits for each of Buncombe County’s two landfills, one of which is closed. The EPA had already approved the permits, staff reported. The EPA does not consider a landfill to be a serious polluter unless it emits more than 50 megagrams of nonmethane organic compounds per year. The closed landfill emits only 14 megagrams of NMOCs per year, and the current landfill is not expected to reach the 50-megagram level until 2024. Most of the emissions from both landfills are methane, which is not regulated. The old landfill’s methane emissions are piped to the Metropolitan Sewerage District plant, where they are either used to generate auxiliary electric power or burned on-site (creating a vivid blue flame that’s sometimes visible off Riverside Drive).

Hearings on fines

Before going into closed session to consider appeals of fines issued to three local companies, the board heard an argument by Doug Wilson of the Asheville law firm McGuire, Wood, Bissette & Smith for a reduction of fines issued to KCB Construction during renovation of the Carrier building in downtown Asheville (under the auspices of Julian Price‘s Public Interest Projects). Agency staff had fined the company $26,000 for alleged violations stemming from the removal of asbestos floor tile. The company conceded three of the charges, totaling $11,000 in fines, Wilson said — improper dumping, failure to keep the tile wet (to prevent dust emissions), and an improperly trained supervisor. But it disputed the fourth charge — failure to notify the agency in writing when the asbestos tile became “friable,” or crumbly. The company argued that it had been told by staff that it only needed to notify the agency orally, which it had. No airborne asbestos was found when tests were conducted, anyway, Wilson said.

On the board’s return from closed session, Queen announced its decisions. International Aggregate — the asphalt recycler whose mishandled violation was former APCA Director Jim Cody‘s parting scandal — was fined $3,600 “due to financial hardship.” Perry Alexander Construction Co. — the contractor for the new Lowe’s site in West Asheville, which raised neighborhood ire along with excessive dust clouds — will enter into a consent order with the agency’s attorney for a fine of $3,000. And the disputed charge against KCB would be dropped, and its fine reduced to $11,000.

“[T]here’s a community perception … that, somehow, we’re still hiding something. … We still have just a little cloud hanging over us with the community, that we could really dissipate by … going ahead with this [audit].”

— APCA board member Richard Maas

Top state official approves of audit

Asked by Mountain Xpress about his conversation with APCA board member Arlis Queen, Wayne McDevitt chief of staff to N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt — denied having threatened to launch a state financial audit of the agency, but confirmed that he has strongly encouraged the local air agency to initiate an extensive, independent financial audit, as “a part of that larger performance audit” which began with the state’s procedural audit last January.

“We felt we need questions answered, and the public needs questions answered. [In] any agency that deals with public money … everything should be audited [regularly],” said McDevitt, who, until last year, headed the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

McDevitt was pleased to hear that the board has been soliciting public input. “If you get the public involved, you keep yourself accountable,” he stated emphatically.

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