Air agency weathers the storm

“We stumbled and we all felt very sad, but we’re feeling like, OK, we’ll just stand back up and move in the direction we had hoped to move in,” said board Chair Nelda Holder at the May 8 meeting of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency board. That was just after she’d announced, “We now have, officially, the city’s commitment to moving forward with an independent, autonomous air-pollution-control board, and an unofficial commitment from the county.”

The air agency has survived the crisis precipitated by Haywood County’s surprise pullout in March, which nullified the 30-year-old interlocal agreement among Haywood, Buncombe County and Asheville that was the legal basis for the agency’s existence. And a proposal to turn the APCA into a branch of county government also appears to have been derailed. Placing the agency under the control of county commissioners and the county manager would have made the board — which now sets policy and approves air-pollution permits — an advisory body only, and left Asheville with no direct role in regulating local air pollution. Two years ago, County Manager Wanda Greene unexpectedly asked the city to withdraw from the interlocal agreement (see our May 20, 1998 article in the APCA Online Archive at And in recent months, Greene urged commissioners to take the APCA in-house. After a public hearing showed unusually strong community support for the air agency, however, City Council members approved a resolution calling for keeping the agency independent, and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol unofficially announced the commissioners’ agreement to retaining the board’s autonomy.

“I’m very proud of the way this board has turned around and the way it’s going now,” added Arlis Queen. “I give full credit to the support we got from the community in the past year. The same people that were giving us criticism [in the past] have now rallied behind this new board, to try to keep things going the way they are now. And I’m very proud that we got that support from those people, and I hope we keep it.”

City, county and agency officials met on May 4 to begin work on a new, expanded interlocal agreement, structured to encourage neighboring counties and cities to join a regional agency that might one day include all the counties in the French Broad River basin. Among those present were Sobol and Commissioner David Young — but not the county manager. And, although some sticky details still remain to be worked out — such as proportional representation, term lengths for board members, and whether certain controversial current board members will be reappointed — the state Environmental Management Commission has told the APCA board’s attorney, Jim Siemens, that it is willing to extend the June 1 deadline for reaching a new agreement.

Clean Air Community Trust Fund

Millions of dollars’ worth of grant funds are available to local communities for clean-air initiatives. And the APCA has a fund balance — accumulated over the years from fines and permit fees — containing half-a-million dollars in unrestricted funds. So board member Alan McKenzie had an idea: Why not use those surplus funds as seed money to obtain matching grants for community air-pollution-education projects? The moneys would be administered — separately from the agency’s permitting-and-enforcement function — as a nonprofit 501(c)3 trust fund. Another $28,000 could be allocated to the fund from next year’s projected civil-penalties income.

“We’re in an exceptional position to lure federal funds,” added fellow board member Richard Maas — whom McKenzie credited with having inspired the idea — “and turn $10,000 into millions of dollars.” Maas suggested that it would be cost-effective to hire a good grant writer for the project. The trust-fund proposal drew enthusiastic support from city and county officials at the May 4 meeting; McKenzie — an experienced administrator of nonprofits — will write up a detailed plan.

That solves the dilemma of what to do with the APCA’s fund balance, which some have speculated may have been a factor in the county’s interest in absorbing the agency. Next year’s budget, which Director Bob Camby presented to the board (after a month’s delay, owing to the recent crisis), reflects a 34 percent cut from last year — in part, to avoid accumulating more excess funds. In addition, the departure of Haywood County has led to reductions in both projected revenues and agency staff (from 15 to 10).

The state has begun a long-awaited financial audit of the APCA’s books for the past four years, Holder announced. Department of Environment and Natural Resources auditor George Dennis made his first visit, spending two-and-a-half days looking through invoices and talking to the county, which kept the APCA’s financial records during that period. He will return once or twice more before sending his report to the board.

CP&L’s Title V permit approved

“In terms of overall air quality, this is the most significant permit we can issue,” Maas said pointedly, before directing several sharp questions at representatives from Carolina Power & Light’s coal-fired power plant in Skyland — the biggest pollution source the agency regulates. But the plant also won high praise from the board for installing state-of-the-art technology, which will reduce nitrous-oxide emissions (a source of acid rain) by a total of 80 percent.

The $6 million “lean gas reburn” system comes on-line just in time for the beginning of ozone season. Plant spokespersons also noted previous reductions achieved by installing low-NOx burners in the furnaces. And, although the facility is increasing its generating capacity to accommodate local growth, the new turbines are fueled by cleaner-burning natural gas, not coal.

Thanks to the new technology, said CP&L spokesman Chuck Waechild, the company will be able to meet the federal standard for NOx (.45 pounds per million BTUs) by averaging the NOx emissions from all its plants in North and South Carolina, an option under federal law. But the Title V permit requires the local plant to meet only the much higher North Carolina standard (1.8 lbs. per million BTUs), which has remained unchanged for many years, despite the advent of low-NOx technology.

Maas praised the company’s efforts, but then exclaimed: “I have a hard time seeing why we’re issuing permits for 1.8 lbs. per million BTUs. It’s like setting the bar at one foot for a high jump, where they’re going to walk over it without even noticing it. It seems to me that, because of all the problems that we’re having with ozone in this region and with NOx, that we should be basing permits on what you all are able to do. You all have gotten out ahead of the curve here, and we certainly want to do nothing but encourage you — but it just seems that this permit is not encouraging you. … This looks like a good plant with a relatively meaningless permit.”

The company also engages in the controversial practice of trading allocations for sulfur-dioxide emissions with other utilities, conceded Waechild, in answer to a question from Maas. Even so, the plant may not emit more than 2.3 pounds per million BTUs of SO — another component of acid rain. But the APCA and the company disagree as to whether the plant may occasionally exceed this figure, as long as average SO emissions are below the limit. CP&L is appealing a violation issued by the agency last year, when a surprise inspection revealed that one of the Skyland plant’s stacks had exceeded the limit over a three-hour period.

Concerns about sewage plant

The Metropolitan Sewerage District plant on Riverside Drive, whose operating permit was also up for renewal, is equipped to pipe in methane gas emitted by the nearby county landfill and burn it to generate electricity. But how often does MSD make use of this innovative, eco-friendly technology? “I keep getting mixed messages on that,” said staff engineer Chuck Sams, replying to board member Doug Clark‘s question. “One day they’ll tell me no, they won’t use it, because they’re getting cheaper electricity from CP&L. On my next visit, their generators will be operating on methane.” Maas, a former MSD board member, said he’s had the same contradictory response from the sewage plant.

The MSD permit also covers a sludge incinerator, and Maas was concerned that the paperwork for renewing the permit made no mention of the heavy metals released into the atmosphere. “This particular facility is a source of major community contention and concern. I need to see something more — the community needs to see something more,” he complained. Camby said the air agency can’t measure the emissions directly, but must depend on the plant’s own quarterly reports. APCA engineer Greg Davis assured Maas that he’d reviewed the reports and that the incinerator is emitting “a small fraction” of the allowable levels of heavy metals. The board approved the permit conditionally, subject to a review of the heavy-metals report. “If something objectionable appears, we revisit it at the next meeting,” said McKenzie.

“Up in a puff of smoke”

There are many air-polluting activities for which the APCA has a stricter standard than the state; one is cremation of human remains. The agency requires human crematories to burn at a temperature of 1,600 degrees, to ensure that only invisible vapors — not Dachau-like black smoke — issue from the stacks. Cremation Services of WNC, in Candler, is conscientiously meeting the standard, staff reported. The board renewed its permit.

Camby noted that the state had once had a higher standard, but has relaxed it, prompting Clark to remark: “The state still allows a man to go up in a puff of smoke. We don’t.”

Incineration was also mentioned in connection with the approval of Haywood County Hospital’s operating permit. Like all other hospitals in our area, Haywood elected to close its medical-waste incinerator, rather than try to meet new federal standards. Now, local medical waste is shipped to Charlotte, where it is destroyed using microwave technology. The hospital’s incinerator was also used by Haywood County law enforcement to burn drug seizures.

At the end of this unusually amicable board meeting, Taxpayers for Accountable Government Co-chair Rachel Queen summarized the hopeful mood of a re-energized board, staff and public:

“To me, it’s very gratifying to experience citizens, leaders of local governments, leaders of businesses, and leaders of industries working together for the common good of all. And it’s wonderful to know that a lot of local industries are working diligently to reduce air pollution, and many of these industries are going beyond what is required. I think your efforts are paying off; I think people are becoming informed. … It’s a wonderful experience.”

Nuggets from the baghouse

[Editor’s note: A “baghouse,” industry’s cheapest and most commonly used air-pollution-control device, is a box filled with conical or cylindrical filters — like giant vacuum-cleaner bags — that trap particulates in dirty air before it is sent out the smokestack.]

Asheville’s sewage plant isn’t the only place where methane gas from a landfill is being put to creative uses. CP&L recently announced it will donate $60,000 to a project in Avery County, “Turning Trash to Treasure,” which uses methane gas produced by rotting trash in a landfill to heat two greenhouses and a glass-blowing furnace. The greenhouses are part of a research facility studying medicinal herbs and native plants that could serve as replacement crops for tobacco; the furnace will be the centerpiece of an art studio that the Penland School, Mayland Community College, and Yancey and Mitchell high schools plan to use as a “business incubator” for artists. An art gallery will showcase the resident artists’ works.

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