Buncombe County Commission

“Keep our air agency independent,” proclaimed the yellow tags adorning about 30 Buncombe County residents who gathered at the county courthouse on April 4 to have a word with the Board of Commissioners regarding the fate of the 30-year-old Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency. Because Haywood County recently pulled out of the interlocal agreement that created the agency, it will cease to exist on July 1, unless some new agreement is reached.

Commissioners had put it on their agenda, giving worried local residents their first chance to address the issue. Public concern has been growing since commissioners met in a possibly illegal closed session on March 7 to discuss the agency’s fate; attending that session were several county staff and APCA Director Bob Camby. County Manager Wanda Greene added to the tension two weeks later, when she told commissioners on March 21 that county staff were “leaning toward” taking the agency’s duties in-house and making the operation answerable to her. That would involve disbanding the independent policy-making agency and replacing it with an advisory board.

At the April 4 meeting, Greene and her staff detailed the county’s six options and then formally recommended that commissioners vote for the in-house approach.

This rankled Hazel Fobes, the chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air — especially when Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol announced that public comment would be limited to 15 to 20 minutes, because commissioners had closed-session issues to address and a funeral service to attend.

“Do you ever feel like they’re bored with us?” Fobes said to the gathered residents.

The crowd nodded.

To the commissioners, Fobes remarked, “I’m sorry you have other places to go,” and politely complained that she felt her comments and those of other residents were being placed second in importance to county staff’s recommendations. And she wasn’t reassured by Sobol’s promise that she and other concerned residents would have an opportunity to speak later, at a joint public hearing on the issue (tentatively scheduled for April or May).

“We want a regional, autonomous board,” declared Fobes, a regular attendee of meetings of the county Board of Commissioners, Asheville City Council, Regional Water Authority and the Air Pollution Control Agency — as well as a founding member of CSDWA. “It’s preposterous for you to think you can take on what [Air Agency Director] Bob Camby does,” she said.

One in-house option calls for placing air-pollution control under the auspices of Emergency Medical Services Director Jerry Vehaun, which prompted Fobes to quip that, while Vehaun can drive an ambulance, he can’t manage the complexity of monitoring ground-level ozone, sulfur-dioxide emissions and other common air pollutants — in addition to enforcing state and federal air-quality regulations.

Fobes took note of Candler resident Jerry Rice‘s earlier comments, in which he had admonished the commissioners to, “Get off your duffs!”

“I don’t speak like that; I’m a Virginia lady,” Fobes chided commissioners (all younger than she), before urging them to take Rice’s suggestion.

Pressed for time, commissioners made no replies to Fobes’ remarks. They had already heard Assistant County Attorney Stan Clontz explain the various options available to the commissioners under state law. Under one option, commissioners could “do nothing” and let the state’s Environmental Management Commission take over, said Clontz. “You would have very little control over [that] program. … You’d be washing your hands of it,” he noted.

Alternatively, commissioners could move the agency in-house, Clontz said, either placing it under an existing county department or creating a separate one. “This would allow you the greatest measure of accountability,” opined Clontz.

Vehaun seconded that notion, mentioning that other environmental issues (such as hazardous waste) fall under the jurisdiction of county departments. “It’s our [staff] recommendation that the present [air-pollution-control agency] be brought under the leadership of Buncombe County,” he said. He argued that having an in-house agency would facilitate faster permitting, more quickly address problems, and be directly accountable to the Board of Commissioners. But whether in-house or autonomous, he urged keeping the agency local, rather than turning it over to the state. Under the local approach, “The [agency’s] assets would be turned over to Buncombe County to be used countywide,” he noted.

Actually, only a portion of the APCA’s assets — including $835,860 in unspent funds — would end up under county control, once the agency is officially dissolved this summer, explained county Finance Director Nancy Brooks. A portion of the unspent money comes from what are called “Title V” programs, which regulate large industrial emitters in Asheville, Buncombe and Haywood counties. All the agency’s assets would have to be divided among the three governments in the interlocal agreement that created the agency (the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and Haywood County). As Brooks calculated it, approximately 54 percent would go to Buncombe County, 13 percent to the city of Asheville, and 24 percent to Haywood County.

Greene suggested placing Buncombe County’s share — minus Title V monies, severance pay to current agency employees, and other expenses — into a trust fund for air- and water-quality programs in the county.

“Our goal is simple: to increase the number of ‘good’ air days in Buncombe County,” Commissioner David Young interjected. He referred to a recently released statistical report, compiled by Asheville-Buncombe VISION, Inc., which cites a 30-percent reduction in the number of “good” days (i.e., days with low levels of airborne pollution) in Buncombe County since 1994. “We’ve got to reverse that trend,” said Young, pushing Greene to give her opinion on which type of board — autonomous or advisory — she felt would most effectively achieve that.

“I would support an advisory board,” she stated. “We’ve had trouble in the past [several] years with [the APCA].” Greene went on to note a lack of control on the county’s part.

One year ago, the heavily criticized APCA underwent a state audit, instigated by Hazel Fobes on behalf of CSDWA, which found serious administrative and policy faults, such as the practice of warning industry about upcoming inspections. But pressure from air-quality advocates resulted in new appointees to the air-agency board, the departure of previous Director Jim Cody, tougher inspection procedures, and other reforms.

Two years ago, Greene shocked Asheville City Council members by asking the city to exit the interlocal agreement, in a move to increase Buncombe County’s control over the agency. Both Council members and county commissioners appeared to have been unaware that county and city staff had been negotiating the proposed city pullout for at least four months before that. No action was taken by City Council.

Asked for his views on whether autonomous or in-house would be better, APCA Director Camby reported, “I really have no preference.” But he added, “Until we have tougher [state and federal] regulations on utilities and mobile sources, we’re not going to have [better] air quality.” Approximately 80 percent of Buncombe County’s air pollution comes from power plants to the west, such as TVA’s coal-burning facilities, Camby mentioned. The other 20 percent comes from local sources, primarily vehicle emissions and electric utilities, he continued. “All of us are polluters. Every time I turn on a light switch or jump in my truck, I’m polluting,” he admitted. Nonetheless, a local agency could “be a model for everyone else [to follow],” asserted Camby.

Fobes and others in the audience applauded Camby’s remarks.

Presenting another angle, Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Patsy Keever commented, “There’s been a lot of concern that, if we had an advisory board, there would not be … a lot of public input.”

But county staff assured her that the public would have input.

Keever also asked, “Is there any chance Haywood [County commissioners] would change their minds?”

Not likely, replied Camby, and Greene agreed. Camby and APCA Chair Nelda Holder have spoken to the commissioners in the past month, urging them to reconsider. “I would say it’s doubtful,” Camby emphasized.

As the discussion continued, Keever appeared to tip her hat toward an in-house program when APCA attorney Jim Siemens explained that an autonomous board is vested with both judicial and legislative authority — and urged keeping things that way. At this point, Keever interrupted with, “Where are the checks and balances?”

The APCA has to follow due process, Siemens replied. The matters the agency deals with are incredibly complex, he continued. “I question … the wisdom of taking an [effective] program and moving it into a county department not used [to handling air-pollution-control issues],” he offered.

Commissioner David Gantt, an attorney, quizzed Siemens on a few legal points, then emphasized that there is an existing system of checks and balances: Agency board decisions can be appealed to Buncombe County Superior Court, and commissioners have a measure of control in the agency via their power to appoint board members.

These points aside, Jerry Rice urged commissioners, “We need to look at a regional approach. … Quit sitting on your duffs and waiting for [more] information. … Let’s make a strong statement here.”

Board of Commissioners candidate Gerald Dean was more direct, raising Keever’s and Sobol’s ire: “Have any of you fellas — including you, Patsy — gone out and talked [to other local governments]?”

Sobol declared that was the agency’s responsibility.

Keever retorted that everyone is calling for an autonomous board, but “then trying to get on [the commissioners case to do more]. If it’s autonomous, it needs to do the work.”

And Sobol added that an air-pollution-control program “needs some kind of financial accountability.” Instead of using the fund balance to sue other states whose pollution wafts Buncombe County’s way (as had been mentioned earlier), the county should keep the money local, he asserted.

Don Yelton, a candidate for Sobol’s current elected position (and a former county recycling coordinator), kept up the pressure, accusing Greene of having wanted the air agency to be part of the county for a long time. He also argued that the county’s existing Environmental Affairs Commission — which, under one option, could be charged with taking over the agency’s advisory functions — is not an effective board, as it now stands.

And Buncombe County resident (and dedicated pedestrian) Mickey Mahaffey pointed out that air quality in the county has grown so bad that, when he walked from his parents’ home in Henderson County to Asheville, “I had to hold my nose. … The smell was so bad, I could hardly breathe.” Mahaffey noted that the air agency’s loss of Haywood County “is an opportunity for y’all … to join hands [with Asheville] and clean up our own backyard first.” Then, other counties could be persuaded to join in the effort, he posited.

“We’ve got to lead,” Asheville resident Keith Thompson agreed. Air pollution adversely affects our quality of life, environment and economics, he emphasized. “Move this thing forward to preserve the existing board, because they know what the job is, and they know how to do it.”

APCA advocates in the audience applauded Thompson’s comments.

Hazel Fobes rounded out the discussion, as commissioners prepared to go into closed session. The existing air-agency staff and board are functioning well, she argued, and should remain autonomous. “Sidewalks could be crumbling, Rome could be burning … but without air, we can’t live. … You better leave [the agency board] where it is now.”

Commissioners made no other comments and took no formal action, other than agreeing to allow those who didn’t have the chance to speak on April 4 to be the first to talk at the as-yet-unscheduled public hearing on the matter.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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