Buncombe County Commission

The state agency charged with monitoring air quality in 96 of North Carolina’s 100 counties recently lifted its moratorium on new asphalt plants — over the objections of many Buncombe and Wautaga County residents.

The policy reversal was made in an underhanded way, without public comment, complained Asheville resident Hazel Fobes, addressing the Buncombe County commissioners during their March 31 meeting. She also charged that the Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency board, which is responsible for Buncombe and Haywood counties’ air quality, is uninformed and stagnant.

The state moratorium, which took effect in July 1997, ended on March 23, according to Tom Mather, public information officer for the Division of Air Quality at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The asphalt moratorium was established after concerns were raised about pollution from “fugitive emissions,” those gases that escape directly from the hot asphalt, rather through a plant’s smokestack. DENR lifted its moratorium after a batch of tests performed by the Division of Air Quality indicated that fugitive emissions from asphalt plants comprise less than 1 percent of total emissions, said Mather.

In a form letter to “concerned citizens” dated March 25, the division’s director, Alan Klimek, said the agency had never promised to hold a public hearing on its findings. Hearings, he wrote, take time, and “the division was trying to complete its study by spring so it would not impede highway projects across the state.”

“The technical problems with [the state’s] study are serious enough to call into question the motives behind the resumption of permitting,” countered Lou Zeller, of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, in a report issued the same day.

Jim Cody, director of the Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency, said in a later interview that he hadn’t known about the state’s action until Fobes informed him.

Cody also confirmed that Richard Proffitt, the Flat Creek resident who wants to build an asphalt plant in a mostly residential area, has resubmitted his application to build the plant on his land.

The agency’s lawyer is looking into the legal implications of Buncombe’s moratorium, now that the state ban has been lifted, Cody said. In the meantime, the agency will review Proffitt’s application. There will be a public hearing on the application before the APCA board takes any action, he said.

According to Mather, the state tests indicated that high levels of benzene could be released in some situations, such as “a large plant located on a small property that’s surrounded by mountains.” The tests focused on benzene because “it is the air pollutant most likely to exceed state standards and pose hazards to public health,” according to a March 23 DENR press release.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies benzene as a carcinogen. According to Toxics A to Z (University of California Press, 1991), exposure to benzene has been linked to leukemia and chromosomal aberrations, and inhaling it can cause respiratory problems.

Zeller questioned the Division of Air Quality’s test methods and charged that the agency is “serving no one but the asphalt paving industry.” He also said that the concentrations of arsenic and formaldehyde found in asphalt-plant emissions are at least as hazardous to humans as benzene.

State and local agencies are awaiting the results of a study of fugitive emissions being conducted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Those tests have been repeatedly postponed, and it could be another year — or longer.– before final results are in.

Mobility in the mountains

Buncombe County wants to be in the “forefront” of community transportation, County Planner Denise Braine told county commissioners. She indicated that, with the restructuring of the county’s BOOST transportation system, that’s exactly where the county can be.

She said the restructuring will include a new name — Mountain Mobility — and better, more flexible services.

Until now, BOOST has served mostly handicapped individuals. It will now strive to offer quality service to a broader range of citizens, said Braine. She also envisions the county contracting with private transportation companies to serve certain routes more efficiently.

Changes to the BOOST system are mandated by the state as part of Gov. Jim Hunt‘s Transit 2001 plan, and should be complete by July 1.

The program will require four new county employees, but the cost to the county shouldn’t increase, Braine told commissioners.

Braine is encouraging local transportation providers to participate in the county’s new program. For more information, call her at 255-5777.

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