Just when it seemed that the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency was becoming a more active and effective force for local pollution control, the Haywood County commissioners abruptly pulled the rug out from under the APCA on Friday, Feb. 25, voting unanimously to withdraw from the agency. The unexpected action ended a 30-year partnership involving Buncombe and Haywood counties and the city of Asheville. The commissioners — who said they had considered pulling out a year-and-a-half ago, when Haywood County residents raised complaints about the agency’s enforcement of open-burning regulations — were apparently motivated to act when longtime APCA board member (and Haywood County appointee) Tom Rhodarmer tipped them off about an upcoming deadline. The “interlocal agreement” that is the legal basis for the agency’s existence specifies that the agreement must be dissolved if any of the participating local governments notifies the other two of its intention to withdraw “at least 120 days prior to July 1,” the start of the agency’s fiscal year. The commissioners’ decision — which caught the rest of the APCA board completely by surprise — means that after July 1, 2000, air-quality regulations will be enforced in Haywood County by the state’s Division of Air Quality, rather than by the local agency. It also means that, unless the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commissioners vote to create a new interlocal agreement, WNC’s regional air agency will cease to exist.
A March 1 emergency public meeting called by the board to discuss the crisis was packed with people who cared about the agency’s future. They included not only the APCA’s 15 employees — who stand to lose their jobs unless Asheville and Buncombe County reconstitute the agency — but also Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene, and assorted businesspeople, environmentalists and other members of the public, many of whom sit on one of the agency’s various advisory councils.
Conspicuously absent, however, were the board’s two Haywood County representatives — Vice Chair Don Randolph (still recuperating from heart surgery) and Tom Rhodarmer, who was out of town. Around the board’s new, open-ended meeting table, a brand-new nameplate marked the seat of every member — even Randolph, whose chair was empty — with one exception: Rhodarmer.
Why did Haywood County quit?
The agency’s board and staff appeared genuinely puzzled as to why the commissioners had chosen to resurrect complaints made earlier by some Haywood County residents that — after three decades of a laissez-faire enforcement policy — the APCA had begun enforcing its regulations much more zealously, handing out several stiff fines for fires that had already been approved by the U.S. Forest Service. APCA Director Bob Camby said he believed that “we [had] solved that problem to everybody’s satisfaction,” by taking steps to align the agency’s permitting process with the Forest Service’s.
“[The withdrawal] was a total shock to me,” said Camby. “I do not know why [the commissioners made the decision] — that is something [they] will have to answer to.” Even Haywood County Manager Jack Horton had been unaware of any problem, Camby said: “He himself told me he thought we had turned a corner with the agency, that we were moving ahead in the right direction.”
“Our vice chair [Don Randolph] was not informed; that’s really all we know,” said board Chair Nelda Holder. Randolph — a retired former manager at Champion Paper (now Blue Ridge Paper Products) in Canton — strongly criticized the pullout, according to a Feb. 28 report in the Waynesville Mountaineer that was circulated at the meeting, calling it a “step in the wrong direction” that would cost the paper mill money. Randolph told Holder he plans to discuss the withdrawal with the commissioners at their March 20 meeting.
The commissioners’ decision means that Haywood County’s largest polluter will now have to pay an extra $137,000 per year in state fees that the local agency doesn’t charge, Camby told an audience member who had questioned whether the company might be behind the decision. Haywood County Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe says she had discussed the subject with officials at Blue Ridge Paper shortly before the vote. The company took no position, she said, telling her that it would accept whatever decision the commissioners made.
Asked by Mountain Xpress why the commissioners had decided to withdraw, Enloe said she was aware that the agency had addressed the problems with the open-burning rules, but that she believes the APCA is simply unnecessary.
“When the agency was established 30 years ago, it served a good purpose” in addressing local air pollution, Enloe said. Today, however, “there are plenty of regulatory agencies and regulations” to oversee local pollution, whereas “much of our problem is coming from other states” in the form of pollution from automobiles in Atlanta and coal-fired power plants in Tennessee and the Ohio Valley, and “we need a strong state voice.”
But Enloe also expressed a deeper frustration with the agency. “I don’t understand why Asheville, not Canton and Waynesville” has separate representation on the board. She and the other commissioners, she said, “never had a clear understanding of the makeup of the board.”
Then why not remain in the agency and try to change it? “We felt it was not necessary to stay in it another year,” said Enloe. And as to the timing of the decision, “We were not aware till recently” about the 120-day deadline before July 1. The commissioners first considered the topic on Feb. 21, but did not vote on it till the following Friday.
“There is no Machiavellian plot here; there is no hidden agenda,” she asserted.
Enloe said that she and Rhodarmer — with whom she had worked for many years at the now-closed Dayco automotive-parts plant — had frequently “discussed the pros and cons” of Haywood County’s being part of the agency. And though he did inform the commissioners about the approaching deadline, he made no recommendations about withdrawal, she said.
For his part, Rhodarmer charged that the air agency’s decisions have been influenced by “a lot of special-interest groups in Buncombe County” and said that Haywood County may be “better off not to be in” the agency, according to the Mountaineer article. The former APCA chairman — who could not be reached for further comment at press time, as his phone had been disconnected — has clashed strenuously with fellow board member Arlis Queen over the latter’s insistence (backed lately by a majority of the board) on obtaining an in-depth audit of the agency’s past finances. During the week following the APCA board’s Feb. 14 meeting, the state finally agreed to conduct the financial audit. Queen is the co-founder of the citizen watchdog group Taxpayers for Accountable Government.
No one at the board’s March 1 meeting seemed to know what effect the withdrawal would have on the status of the financial audit. But Camby and staff engineer Chuck Sams described the many losses that they said would stem from dissolving the local air agency.
In almost every area of air-pollution control in which the agency is active — including asbestos abatement, air-pollution and emissions monitoring, gasoline-vapor recovery, dust abatement, industry inspection and permitting, open-burning regulation, transportation planning and more — the thinly spread state Division of Air Quality is significantly laxer, slower to act, costlier and less accessible than the local agency, they said. Industry permits that take less than one month for the APCA to act on take six to 18 months for the state to process. With only 13 inspectors to cover 17 counties — compared to the agency’s 14 to cover two counties — the state ignores open-burning and odor complaints. The agency’s thoroughness, said Camby, has made it a “vital force in the asbestos-abatement industry,” whereas the state inspects only half of all asbestos-removal projects (the minimum required by the EPA).
In addition, Sams and Camby noted that our region, which suffers the worst air pollution in the state, would also lose the public forum the agency now provides through its meetings, advisory councils and educational efforts. It would also mean the end of programs such as the Haywood County Asthma Coalition, which the agency helped form to address the fact that asthma susceptibility among children in this, the second-most-polluted basin in the country (next to the Los Angeles Basin), is now 50 percent higher than in the rest of North Carolina. Pollution monitors in Waynesville and Barber Orchard would have to be removed, as well.
What comes next?
The APCA can continue to operate as a regional agency if the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County commissioners enact a new interlocal agreement. County manager Wanda Greene said the Buncombe County commissioners had not yet had a chance to discuss the crisis. But Mayor Leni Sitnick promised that Asheville’s City Council would take up the issue at its March 7 work session. Sitnick also spoke strongly in support of local air-pollution control at the March 1 meeting:
“Anybody who is alive in the year 2000 knows that, up until very recently, the regulators didn’t understand about the cost of disease, and that disease is not cost-effective. The regulators didn’t understand the fact that you don’t let the polluters and the lobbyists for the polluters write the regulatory laws. And that’s what’s been happening in this country for the last many decades. And then what happens is you have the Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control board struggling to clean up the air that has become toxic and dangerous because of the lax federal and state laws that you are dealing with today. Essentially, this agency is in place for a number of things, one of which is to give permits to polluters to pollute. And somewhere, Big Brother has set certain standards to allow so many parts per million and so many parts per billion of some of the most toxic and devastating substances to humankind and animalkind and to nature to be in our environment. And so my question to you is, what do you envision … your future role to be in challenging the state and feds with their laxness…?”
APCA board member (and former chair) Doug Clark suggested that, rather than shrink to representing just one county, the agency should strive to cover the entire French Broad River Basin, since it is affected, as a whole ecosystem, by air pollution trapped under the inversion layers to which it is prone.
Camby pointed out that “any adjoining county [to Buncombe] can join the agency,” adding that, when the APCA was first forming in 1968 and 1969, Henderson and Transylvania counties were included, along with Buncombe and Haywood. The two dropped out when the agency was formally established in 1970, because they couldn’t afford to contribute financial support. Now, however, that barrier is gone, because the agency is financially self-sustaining.
Board member Alan McKenzie echoed Camby, Holder and the other board members in urging public support for maintaining local air-pollution control. Responding to an audience member’s question whether local control is a realistic public-health goal, considering that “85 percent of our air pollution is coming in from outside sources,” Mckenzie, who is the director of the Buncombe County Medical Society, said: “There’s a famous statement that’s often made … that ‘Everything in health care is local.’ I think that applies to this issue, as well. If [pollution-control efforts are] not grassroots, coming from communities like Asheville that then funnel up to our policy-makers at the local level and the state level [and the] federal level, then we never will get anywhere. … This is a community that cares for the environment; a lot of us are here because … we enjoy the mountains. I think our tourists come here to [be able to] see 30 miles, not three miles. … This [agency] is touch-and-feel local accountability.”