It’s in the air

The mind does not absorb what the eye cannot see.

— Aldo Leopold

Across Western North Carolina, winter-weary residents are welcoming another spring. Unfortunately, May also marks the start of the season of increased ground-level ozone. Automobile and industrial emissions mingle with sunlight to create ozone and other pollutants. And from May through September, the resulting gaseous soup, which we call smog, routinely cloaks our mountains and valleys in a brownish haze.

Right on schedule, assorted federal, state and local organizations are sponsoring activities to focus attention on air quality and what citizens can do about it (see sidebar). And for a region awash in air-quality woes, it couldn’t be more timely.

Tracking our ecological footprints

As WNC’s population and economy continue to expand, so does our collective demand for energy, manufactured products, transportation and natural resources. Emissions from factories, power plants, vehicles and gas-powered lawn equipment all feed a continuing decline in regional air quality. Until recently, however, a lack of comprehensive data hampered efforts to address these problems.

In the wake of a conference held in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in 1992, the eight Southern Appalachian states teamed up with state and federal environmental regulatory agencies, federal land managers, local industry, academia, environmental groups and interested public participants to create the Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative. SAMI’s mission is to: research the effects of air pollution on visibility, streams, soils and vegetation; identify existing air-pollution sources; and recommend regional emissions-management strategies. Armed with air-quality data and computer models, SAMI tracks emissions from their sources and simulates the complex processes taking place in the atmosphere. Scientists working on the project can then use those findings to project air-pollutant concentrations and exposures across the region.

The interagency project focuses on “class I sites” — ecologically sensitive national parks and wilderness areas that serve as environmental barometers for the region. One of those participating agencies is the Division of Air Quality of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Regional Supervisor Paul Muller explains: “Class I areas are those given the nation’s highest measure of air-quality protection by the Clean Air Act. In WNC, these include the Great Smoky Mountains, Shining Rock and Linville Gorge.”

An interim report released last December revealed that many of the pollutants reaching the higher elevations (over 3,500 feet) are transported by the wind from other parts of the country. But the SAMI report also showed that WNC’s mountain communities generate a significant amount of in-house pollution. Muller agrees. “There’s so many variables to consider — what type and size of the particulate, whether the source is mobile or stationary, locally generated or regionally transported. And certainly, meteorology plays an active role in the region’s air quality.”

Using a color-coded modeling graph generated from the report, Muller demonstrated how researchers can isolate and compare levels of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide (which is generated by auto emissions and power plants) at various class I sites. This provides valuable clues as to the source of those emissions.

In developing emissions-reduction strategies, SAMI uses projections for population growth, vehicle miles traveled and electricity generation in the coming years. (Between 1990 and 2040, SAMI projects a 267 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled in the eight-state region.) And though SAMI’s scientific analysis involves many complex technical assumptions, Muller’s practical perspective is not exactly rocket science: “We all contribute to and are affected by air pollution. Individually and collectively, we need to become aware of the ways we impact our environment.”

Behavioral change

Forget about blaming our air woes on some convenient scapegoat — SAMI points its research-based finger right at you and me, the cars we drive, and the energy we consume. Our routine daily behavior — as well as when, where and how we do it — has a big impact on local air pollution.

To Asheville resident Julie Ferdyna, it’s a matter of simple lifestyle choices. A physician, she routinely cycles from her West Asheville residence to her office at the V.A. Hospital in Oteen.

“Some people don’t consider the health benefits of commuting by bike. Cycling improves one’s cardiovascular system and burns calories,” Ferdyna explains. Another huge benefit, she maintains, is the attitude adjustment that comes from doing the right thing and making a difference, however small or incremental. Cycling to and from work, says Ferdyna, provides a kind of “transitioning” that seems to be a natural stress reducer. And besides cycling’s health benefits, human-powered transportation is also a no-emissions alternative to the automobile.

Alternative-transportation options such as cycling, walking, car-pooling and mass transit offer direct solutions to Asheville’s air-quality problems. For every 1,000 miles we drive, our cars burn more than 30 gallons of fuel and emit about 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Do the math and you start to understand what Jane Holtz Kay meant when she wrote, “It’s hard to call yourself an environmentalist if you’re driving an automobile.” Kay, the author of Asphalt Nation, chronicles America’s car culture and the devastating impact the automobile has had on our cities and our landscape during the past century.

Mike Koerschner, an environmental engineer with the N.C. Division of Air Quality, chuckled when I shared Kay’s quote with him. “Consumer habits impact the environment,” Koerschner observed. “Trip-chaining is a good example. Automobiles emit more pollutants the first few minutes after we start them up. Catalytic controls require heat to become effective, and until the engine warms up, the exhaust system releases more carbon monoxide, reactive hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere.” U.S. residents take some 900 million car trips each day — and 13.7 percent of them (about 123 million, all told) are to destinations no more than a half-mile away.

The WNC Regional Air Quality Agency’s Web site (www.wncair.org) lists “21 Ways You Can Clean the Air,” conveniently arranged in such categories as “At Home,” “On the Road” and “Be A Green Consumer.” Like Koerschner, the local agency suggests combining as many errands as possible into one trip. Besides helping save the planet, these common-sense tips also free up time that can be put to more enjoyable uses.

Reinventing Asheville

All across the American landscape, groups and individuals are joining forces to transform their communities — making them more livable in ways that don’t degrade their social, economic and environmental integrity. For Kim Carlyle, advocating for clean air has become a way of life. Both Kim and his wife, Susan, work passionately with local, regional and state clean-air campaigns.

The Carlyles’ most recent focus has been educating people of faith about energy conservation and other environmental issues. “The Interfaith Global Climate Change Campaign shares information on regional-to-global environmental issues and encourages our communities to act on their responsibility to care for the earth,” he explains. The national organization, says Carlyle, also partners with business, agricultural and environmental groups to find common ground on conservation measures. In addition, the group conducts free energy audits for churches and recommends ways they can conserve energy. The North Carolina chapter works directly with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Waste Reduction Partners, which offers free energy-efficiency assessments for public and nonprofit agencies.

Carlyle also points to another avenue for positive environmental change — the political process. “Both levels [legislation and personal choices] are necessary to complete the educational and regulatory process,” he believes. “Being aware of current regulations, environmentally related bills and conservation programs like the state ‘green power’ program helps get the message out to others.” N.C. utilities, he notes — including CP&L and Duke Power — will soon begin offering customers a chance to buy electricity generated using alternative technologies rather than coal, gas or nuclear fuels. CP&L spokesperson Garrick Francis says the target date for the program is June 1.

Taking to the streets

When the N.C. General Assembly starts its short session later this month, the Clean Smokestacks Bill (S1078) will once again be on the agenda. The bill would strengthen regulatory standards to help address the state’s air-quality crisis. The state Senate passed S1078 last April, 43-5, but the bill got bogged down in the House Committee on Public Utilities.

To send state legislators a message, the grassroots Canary Coalition is organizing a 28-hour Clean Air Vigil in Asheville’s Pack Square. The event, which runs May 10-11, will include a Voter’s Summit on Mountain Air Quality to coincide with the Southern Governors Summit on Mountain Air Quality in Charlotte.

“All people concerned about the effects of air pollution on the health of our children and the future of our region should make an effort to participate and show their support for this effort,” urged Canary Coalition spokesman Avram Friedman in a recent press release. Citizens will be able to express their views via petitions and a solar-powered PA system.

Former Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick, Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jay Denton, poet Thomas Rain Crowe and folk singer Peggy Seeger are among the public speakers, entertainers and local religious leaders who will share the ways their lives have been affected by the region’s air-quality problems. The vigil begins on Friday at 6 p.m. and continues overnight through Saturday until 10 p.m. The event will also include live music, poetry readings, storytelling and prayer sessions. A second overnight Clean Air Vigil is planned for May 28-29 in Raleigh, to greet the opening of this year’s legislative session.

Friedman proclaims: “We intend to display a powerful array of community leaders and citizens who are determined to see progress in improving North Carolina’s air quality — with no more excuses.”

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