Tension in the air

While city and county officials seem to agree on the importance of retaining local jurisdiction over air matters, the sticking point between Asheville and Buncombe County remains whether the agency should remain an independent, multi government entity, or simply become a part of county government, under the control of County Manager Wanda Greene and the county commissioners.

Meanwhile, air-agency staff continue to labor without any assurances as to who their boss will be come July 1 — or whether they’ll be filing for unemployment. “I’ve been spending way too much on Tagamet and Zantac lately,” remarked one staff member during a break in the APCA’s April 10 board meeting.

Agency Director Bob Camby, who says he’s been “trying to stay neutral” and not favor either group of his potential future bosses, was taken by surprise at the county commissioners’ April 4 meeting, when County Manager Greene included him as a member of a team that she said had recommended absorbing the agency into the county. “I didn’t realize I was on a committee,” Camby said, adding that he had merely been asked by the county manager to do some research into the state’s two other local air-pollution agencies, and on what the state would require Buncombe County to do before taking the agency under its wing.

Greene put Camby on the hot seat again a few days later, when she asked him to draft an announcement to the state declaring the county’s intention to keep the program local, and to attach copies of the agency’s budget.

In reaction to these troubling events, APCA board Chair Nelda Holder obtained board approval on April 10 — over the objection of Buncombe County appointee Doug Clark — for a new policy requiring approval by the chair or vice chair of any requests made to agency staff to develop new reports or information pertaining to the agency’s future.

“To have staff pulled in multiple directions by multiple entities is patently unfair,” commented board member Alan McKenzie, speaking in support of the policy.

Besides objecting to the new policy, Clark also raked board attorney Jim Siemens over the coals, for failing to indicate on April 4 that he was speaking as an individual when he publicly urged commissioners not to try to take over the agency.

The air agency’s new policy directs all employees and board members to make it clear that they are speaking as individuals when expressing their opinions in public.

But Clark was unable to find a second for his motion that Siemens be directed to state publicly, in front of the TV cameras at the next Board of Commissioners meeting, that he had been speaking as an individual.

State schedules financial audit

The state finally sent written confirmation to the board of its promise to conduct an audit of the agency’s past financial dealings. On April 28, George E. Dennis, internal audit manager for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, will begin his audit of the agency’s books.

Board member Arlis Queen and other local-government watchdogs have long called for an audit of the air agency.

Dennis promised to examine, among other things, “the terms of the agreement between Buncombe County and the Agency, whereby Buncombe County receives monetary benefit for the provision of services to the Agency.” The county has always kept the agency’s books, and board members have criticized the county’s budget reports and audits as vague and incomplete.

County manager Greene has promised publicly that the financial audit will go forward, even if the county takes over the agency.

Staying ahead of the curve

Despite the uncertainties concerning the agency’s future, “We’re making housekeeping changes well ahead of the curve,” McKenzie declared, referring to a hefty packet of updated rules and regulations titled “Air Quality Code,” which the staff presented to the board, in preparation for a legally required 30-day public-comment period.

Last year, the board voted to put the agency’s rules in order, particularly when they differ from the state’s air-pollution rules. Most of these differences concern open burning, explained agency engineer Chuck Sams.

Camby presented a letter he had sent to all local fire departments, at the board’s request, soliciting fire chiefs’ “ideas on how we can better inform the public on open burning requirements.” The letter describes several incidents in recent months in which individuals were given incorrect information by local fire-department officials about what can and can’t be burned legally.

Appeals hearings

Clark questioned the cost-effectiveness of the board’s appeals-hearing process. Pointing out that, during the last 14 hearings, fines have averaged only $200, Clark asked whether the board should consider adding administrative costs to its fines.

But Queen, the board’s hearing officer, replied that the hearings offer a useful way to educate the public, as well as a means of assessing penalties, and that, because of what he termed the agency’s fair treatment of violators, the hearings have helped create good will for the agency.

Now that he is more experienced, Queen explained, he rarely requires the pricey presence of the board’s attorney at hearings — and, he added, as a volunteer board member, his services are unpaid.

Veteran board member Don Randolph reminded the board that the appeals procedure had been instituted after a Superior Court judge, to whom a fine had been appealed, ruled against the agency because it did not hold administrative hearings. (That case will wind its way to the Court of Appeals on May 11.)

Queen presented more than a half-dozen appeal recommendations to the board, which approved substantial reductions in fines in most of the cases, due to extenuating circumstances.

Agency staff had fined downtown-business owner Chris Peterson $1,000 for failing to obtain an air-pollution permit before tearing down a building in Black Mountain. Inspectors told Queen that Peterson has always, in the past, obtained the proper permits for his work in Asheville, but he hadn’t realized that he needed a demolition permit from the APCA. in Black Mountain, as well. At Queen’s recommendation, the board reduced Peterson’s fine to $250 — the cost of the permit he had neglected to obtain.

Harvey Owen of HOP Inc. appealed his $4,000 fine for an open-burning violation. The agency inspector who arrived on the scene found trash and plastic bottles at the site of the fire, which was already out. But Queen noted that it was obvious from photos that Owen had been set up: None of the plastic was burned. Evidently, someone had piled the illegal flammables neatly at the edge of the almost-burnt-out fire, then called agency inspectors. Nevertheless, the fire should have been inspected, so Queen recommended (and the board approved) reducing the fine to $250.

The owner of Morgan Tank Lines, a gasoline-distribution company, received a hefty $5,000 fine — reduced from $10,000 — because one of its employees violated emissions rules by leaving a vent-valve on his tanker truck open while filling gas-station storage tanks.

“I’m concerned that it’s quicker to empty the tank with the valve open,” said board member Richard Maas. “The only deterrent [to such violations] is getting caught and [being] fined.”

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