Threat or promise?

“I think we should implement this plan; people expect us to do something.”

— Asheville City Council member Jan Davis

Mountain residents and visitors can breathe a more-or-less clean sigh of relief: Unexpectedly low ozone-pollution levels let Western North Carolina off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s nonattainment hook (for now, anyway). Nonetheless, local government leaders still want to continue with their now-voluntary Mountain Area Compact to work on cleaning up the region’s air.

Apparently, however, a love of clear mountain views is not their only motive for choosing to preserve the plan: Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey, for example, also sees it as providing useful political cover for pushing through the expansion of Interstate 26.

Just a year ago, it looked as though Western North Carolina’s high ozone levels were bound to violate the EPA’s “eight-hour standard” and push the region into nonattainment status — triggering draconian restrictions on new road construction and industrial expansion. To avert the dreaded federal intervention, counties in the region signed onto the EPA’s offer of an early-action compact (a mutual agreement to institute locally developed pollution-control measures). Local governments in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties banded together to form the Mountain Area Compact, and government, industry, environmental and community leaders began meeting regularly to come up with a list of goals and actions to undertake (see sidebar, “The Mountain Area Early Action Compact”).

Last summer, however, was one of the wettest and coolest on record in WNC. And since ozone pollution can’t happen without dry, sunny days, the gloomy weather throughout the peak ozone season lowered regionwide averages sufficiently to save us from the looming specter of nonattainment. What’s more, with top-of-the-line pollution controls now being installed at the Progress Energy plant in Arden, and cleaner auto fuels and improved emissions testing on the near horizon, local and national air-quality regulators believe WNC is no longer in danger of violating the eight-hour standard.

“Nonattainment is not a threat now,” proclaimed Regional Supervisor Paul Muller of the state Division of Air Quality at a Feb. 22 meeting of top officials from Asheville and Mountain Area Compact counties. The word from the EPA, said Muller, was that the governments in question could now choose whether to disband the MAC or continue it voluntarily, sticking with the original March 31 deadline for submitting a regional pollution-reduction plan.

There wasn’t much debate. “We need to see the mountains,” observed Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, who favored keeping the MAC going. All the other officials who weighed in at the meeting seemed to concur (pending approval from their home governments), several citing the importance of clean air to the local tourism industry.

Newly elected Asheville City Council member Jan Davis spoke forcefully in favor of keeping the MAC on track.

For Buncombe County residents, said Davis (who owns a tire store), “Clean air is the No. 1 request from government. … [The MAC] came up with real usable guidelines, and I think we should implement this plan. People expect us to do something; we can affect air quality. … I want to see this group stay together — I’m not sure there’s something in there that’s going to bite you.”

Davis chaired the early-action compact’s Asheville/Buncombe Council, which hammered out the bulk of the plan over the past year.

A smokescreen for I-26?

Ramsey, however, presented a more surprising argument for continuing the compact.

“We all have certain transportation projects we want to push. [With the MAC], we can say we’re trying to do what we can to reduce air pollution — but we still need the highway projects. … Our experience with DOT’s response to community opposition to the I-26 Connector has shown there’s not much we can do to speed up a project, but there’s a lot we can do to slow it down. Anything we can do to counter arguments [against I-26 expansion], we should do.”

Later, referring to the I-26 lane-widening in Henderson County that was recently halted by an environmental lawsuit, Ramsey reiterated, “I still think pushing 26 in Henderson County … it [the early-action compact] helps us tell opponents we’re doing something for air quality.”

Ramsey and other proponents of highway expansion argue that the region’s increasing traffic requires wider highways to prevent pollution-generating congestion. But those opposed to widening I-26 in Henderson County and West Asheville cite studies conducted elsewhere in the U.S., which show that adding more lanes to freeways merely attracts more traffic to fill them.

It’s not an abstract argument. Western North Carolinians’ exploding rate of automobile use is the one hard-to-calculate factor that could still push the region into nonattainment — a caveat Ramsey elicited from Muller.

“Haven’t VMTs [vehicle miles traveled, a basic measure of regional car-and-truck use] increased much faster than predicted?” asked Ramsey.

“My guess, yes,” Muller replied. “The growth has been amazing,” he said, adding, “If we [do] go into nonattainment, having an early-action compact will protect us” when the EPA re-evaluates WNC’s air-quality status in 2007.

The one member county that didn’t send a representative to the meeting was Haywood, which other county officials say may pull out of the compact. The only air-pollution monitor in WNC that’s now showing unacceptable levels of ozone is in Haywood County — atop Purchase Knob, in the Plott Balsam Mountains. But the EPA, notes Muller, agrees that the pattern of pollution levels measured at the high-elevation site shows that the ozone is being transported from elsewhere.

And highways or no, ozone blowing onto our ridge tops from other areas’ dirty power plants is an interstate pollution problem that only higher levels of government have the power to address.

The Mountain Area Early Action Compact

It had to satisfy a diverse group of businessmen, environmentalists, developers, utility representatives, community activists, regulatory officials and others. Its measures are mostly voluntary — they won’t be “enforceable,” reports Regional Supervisor Paul Muller of the state Division of Air Quality, unless local governments decide to request that it be included in the State Implementation Plan that’s due to be submitted to the EPA on March 31.

Still, the Mountain Area Compact’s early-action plan for Asheville and Buncombe County contains many suggestions for practical ways members of the public and local governments can help reduce ozone pollution. Some of them are things you probably already know by now (turn off the lights when you leave the room, ride your bike, park and walk in instead of idling in a drive-through). But there are also some you may not have thought of: For example, don’t run your two-stroke, gas-powered lawnmower (which pollutes as much in an hour as 40 late-model cars) until late in the day, because ozone tends to form in the morning. Shut off your car’s engine when you’re parked, because idling for even 30 seconds to a minute produces more pollution than restarting the car.

For local governments, the plan’s suggestions include limiting morning meetings on high-ozone days; switching nonemergency fleets to alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles; continuing to require tree planting; cracking down on smoking vehicles; getting businesses involved in Ozone Action Day programs; and encouraging mixed-use neighborhoods and urban-infill development to reduce auto use.

Local public-relations whizzes might even get involved in implementing some of the numerous “community outreach” suggestions, such as developing “air-quality themes” for ads on buses and in other public venues.

To see the Mountain Area Compact’s plan for Asheville and Buncombe County, go to www.wncair.org/MntAreaCompact/Buncombe%20list.pdf. To see the full plan (including the recommendations for Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties), go to www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/ozone/eac/m030616_eac_nc_mountain.pdf. To make comments or to find out more, contact Michael Bradley at 250-4830, or mike.bradley@buncombecounty.org.

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