A no-breather

No one could miss the drift: More than 100 Buncombe residents packed the Asheville City Council chambers the evening of April 18. Twenty-five more stood in the hall. One by one, each speaker called on Asheville City Council members and Buncombe County commissioners to preserve the Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency.

“We absolutely need an autonomous agency, not just an advisory board,” declared biologist Susan Andrew, a resident of Kenilworth.

At issue was whether the APCA and its policy-making board — due to be dissolved this summer, because of Haywood County’s withdrawal from the agreement that created the agency — should be reconstituted as an independent entity serving Asheville/Buncombe, or turned over to the state, or taken in-house and run as a county department.

“If the agency is subsumed into the wings of an existing county [department], its value to the people of Buncombe County will be greatly diminished,” said Dr. Lou Patrie, representing the WNC chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

He was the first of scores of local residents who urged commissioners and Council members to keep the agency independent. Many waxed nostalgic about WNC’s once-pristine air quality; a few accused commissioners of dragging their feet and, even, trying to undermine the agency; one delivered his message as rap poetry, drawing applause with his declaration, “It’s our turn now.” There were UNCA college students, elderly environmentalists, businessmen, professors, doctors and people suffering from respiratory problems. There was even, joked businessman Ted Prosser, “a Republican capitalist real estate developer.”

It’s our turn now

“Air pollution deeply hurts each and every one of us,” said UNCA student and Asheville Film Commission member Sarah Blankenship, citing the detrimental effects on the local tourist industry, residents’ health and quality of life, and the budding film industry. “Consider all the aspects,” she urged.

“Commissioners are dragging their feet and putting the agency on hold,” alleged Hazel Fobes, representing Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air. Commissioners had wanted to wait until mid-May to hold a public hearing, but City Council members pushed for an earlier date. Fobes also said that county staff had given commissioners a one-sided report last month, which recommended bringing the agency in-house and creating an advisory (as opposed to a policy-making) board. Challenging staff’s claim that they could do a better job than the existing agency, Fobes exclaimed, “Now, how ridiculous could you be?” County staff, she maintained, lack both the expertise and the time to carry out the air agency’s functions, which include inspecting plant facilities, monitoring air quality, evaluating permit requests, assessing and collecting fines, and advocating for mass transit and other ways to reduce vehicular emissions. Turning these duties over to county staff, and dismissing the current reform-minded board and employees, “would be like having a first-year medical student performing open-heart surgery,” Fobes declared.

“If it works, keep it,” said David Stewart, representing Smart Growth Partners of WNC. In the past year, the APCA and its board have “overcome [their history of] being controlled by those [they’re] meant to regulate,” asserted Stewart, referring to prior charges of corruption and rubber-stamping. With a host of administrative and policy reforms, the agency is now more open to the public and more effective: “It does work,” said Stewart.

“I was not surprised to see that, once the old dog got some new teeth, it was decided it was best to shoot it in the head,” observed Earth First member Ed Stein. Urging that officials keep the agency and board autonomous, he warned: “You want to see the future [of air quality]? Go up to the top of Mount Pisgah.”

“We need an agency that’s going to lead us to blue skies and clean air,” urged UNCA environmental-policies instructor Dee Eggers, a Seattle native who said that, as a child, she’d seen the air there change from clear skies to a brownish, ozone-heavy haze.

Taxpayers for Accountable Government co-founder Rachel Queen called it “imperative” that the city of Asheville remain an integral player in the new agency, noting that the recent round of reforms had been instigated by city appointees. “With all due respect, the county does not have a good track record demonstrating concern for air quality,” she admonished commissioners. Queen criticized the appointment to the board, several years ago, of a former agency director — and his near-immediate hiring as a consultant, after he’d taken early retirement from the agency. She also mentioned County Manager Wanda Greene‘s request, two years ago, that the city leave the air agency. “Why should we trust the quality of our air and our health to county government?

Agency board Chair Nelda Holder, speaking as a private individual, asked commissioners and Council members to address several concerns, whichever option they choose: Dedicate the agency’s $850,000 fund balance, and its annual revenue from fines and permits, to air-pollution control; maintain — and strengthen — the new agency’s civil-penalties process; keep current staff levels; retain the new citizens’ advisory board; and move forward with a strategic plan for improving air quality.

“I’ve seen [this agency and board] go from absolute corruption to … doing a good job,” said APCA board member Arlis Queen, who also spoke as a private citizen. When county staff recommended taking the agency in-house, they claimed they could “issue permits faster,” he recalled. “But never once did they say, ‘We can give you better air.'” Taking over the agency, he argued, would be like “a slap in the face” to current agency employees and board members who’ve fought for reforms. “Turn it over to the state, if you’re not going to keep it independent,” he concluded.

Mountain Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes thanked Council for holding the public hearing in April, before going on criticize the commissioners. “It appears that some county officials are not interested in hearing about the merits of an autonomous board. They’ve made up their minds to do one outrageous thing: Dismantle a reformed and well-operating air agency.”

He also alleged that commissioners had met illegally in closed session on March 7 with APCA Director Bob Camby to discuss the fate of the agency: “There was no public scrutiny of what you were discussing. … You’re accustomed to that way of doing business.”

Fobes urged commissioners and Council members to keep the board autonomous — which, he said, is essential “to operat[ing] in the open and be[ing] accountable to the public.” He also questioned commissioners’ intentions with respect to the APCA’s $850,000 fund balance, asking, “Is someone trying to get [control] of [that] and the revenue stream?”

“Chairman Sobol has said he’s getting the same number of calls from industry in support of taking the agency in-house, as he is from people saying to keep it autonomous. Yet, so far, he’s been unwilling to divulge the names of any of those industries,” continued Fobes, who then presented letters in support of the current agency from more than a dozen prominent local industries, such as Kearfott, Lustar, Vulcan and APAC. “Deciding to keep the agency independent should be “a no-brainer — a no-breather, even,” Fobes concluded.

WNC Alliance representative Susan Hutchinson said: “Three or four years ago, air-pollution control wasn’t being taken seriously [here]. [But] thousands of volunteer hours have gone into reforming [the agency and board]. Why should we ask people to volunteer their time, if we’re going to throw it out the window as soon as it reaches fruition?” As for people who maintain that most of the area’s pollution comes in from other states, Hutchinson noted, “It’s hard to ask Tennessee to clean up their air, if we’re not willing to do it first.”

On a lighter note, Brett Boyce presented his rap poem, “Our Turn.” “Your voice can be a beacon in the night,” he told the assembled public officials, adding, “It’s our time now … then commissioners … Who’s next?”

Mickey Mahaffey, representing a group called the Peacemakers, said, “The agency would be better if you’re not in it; you’re just too busy.” He urged that air-pollution control be delegated to board members and agency employees who have “the desire and the means” to improve local air quality. “The environment is not an abstract idea. … It is our water, air and the earth. It is us.”

APCA board member Rick Maas, an environmental-studies professor at UNCA, pleaded with officials to keep the agency autonomous. Maas, a county appointee to the board, said, “Last summer, you told me to do my best and turn the board around and get more public involvement. … Please continue to give us a chance.”

Many other speakers urged officials not to “bury” the agency in a county department. Businessman Ted Prosser, characterizing himself as “a Republican, capitalist, real-estate developer,” observed that the speakers represented a diverse cross-section of Buncombe residents. He said he deals with air pollution every day: When he takes potential clients up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, they point to the brown layer in the air and ask, “What’s that?” Reported Prosser: “I don’t have a good bullshit answer for them, anymore. I have to tell them it’s air pollution.”

And Sharon Martin emphasized that everyone who had spoken supported an independent, local board and agency. “Will you represent us?” she asked.

The official response

“I caught the drift,” said Commissioner David Gantt. “It’s time to do an autonomous, independent board.”

Commissioner David Young said people’s comments had swayed him in that direction, too, adding that any new agreement between Asheville and Buncombe would have to leave the door open to including other local governments in the region.

Commissioner Bill Stanley said simply, “I’m going to protect these mountains, folks.”

But Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol accused naysayers at the hearing of providing “misinformation,” to which he wasn’t going to respond at that time. He assured the audience that there’s “no deal on the table,” that commissioners hear staff recommendations all the time before either accepting or rejecting them. “There’s been no question about keeping it a local agency,” he emphasized. But, if the board is to remain autonomous, “benchmarks and performance measures” that don’t now exist must be in place.

Council member Barbara Field said she was pleased with the benchmark idea, but complained that she hadn’t heard balance in the remarks given that evening.

Council member Charles Worley also stressed the need to “structure this [new agency and board] in such a way that we can invite others [to participate].”

And Council member Terry Whitmire praised the younger adults who had spoken up at the hearing.

Mayor Leni Sitnick remarked, “We better sit up and take notice. Prevent[ing air pollution] is a whole lot cheaper than cleanup.”

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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