Clearer consequences for air polluters

Air polluters may soon have a better idea of just how big a fine they’ll face if caught: The agency that monitors Buncombe and Haywood counties’ air hopes to adopt a new, more detailed civil-penalties policy soon.

Polluters now have a a good deal of negotiating room under the Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency’s existing two-page policy, which spells out consequences for violations. For example, the fine for “excess emission violations” can run anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, “depending on severity.”

The agency board plans to vote on the new policy at its July 11 meeting.

The proposed policy is 13 pages long and sets specific fines for specific violations. Emission and other types of infractions are broken into multiple categories, each with its own fine. For example, anyone who violates the state emission standard and causes environmental damage must pay $5,000.

Under the proposed policy, the agency board can fine violators for each day they remain out of compliance, as long as the total fine doesn’t exceed $200,000. Second- and third-time violations will face, respectively, fines two- and three-times as high as the original fine.

However, there’ll still be some wiggle room: According to the policy introduction, the agency will use the rules for “guidance,” and retain the right to vary the policy and “change it any time without public notice.”

Agency staff developed the draft at the urging of the Clean Water Fund of North Carolina, which has been trying to get regulatory bodies to get tough on polluters.

Ginny Lindsey, co-director of the Fund, said the local air agency’s current policy is “not really a policy. That’s why we’ve urged [the board] to adopt a written-out policy. That way, everybody will know how polluting penalties are derived.”

Those proposed penalties are still too low, argued Lindsey. But she added, “We think, overall, it’s a pretty good start.” She praised the draft for its clarity and consistency.

Agency Director Jim Cody modeled the proposed policy on the one used by state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He asked the agency board to review the draft and give him feedback. “I want as much input on this as I can get,” he said.

In other actions, the board:

• Discussed the possibility of raises for agency staff. The two-county agency’s finances are administered by Buncombe County, however, and county Personnel Director Rob Thornberry told Cody and two agency board members in an April 30 meeting that the agency’s current salaries are in line with those of the rest of Buncombe County’s 1,500 other employees. Thornberry did say he would investigate the possibility of raises, but “he didn’t give us much hope that he would do anything,” said board Chairman Tom Rhodarmer.

• Increased the Title V assessment fees by $4 per ton, to $13.53 per ton, which must be paid annually by all high-volume emitters of regulated pollutants, as defined by the U.S. EPA. The assessment-fee schedule is set at either state or local level, with actual fees determined by the number of tons of pollutants emitted. Title V fees apply to eight sources in the agency’s jurisdiction, according to Engineering Supervisor John Pettigrew. The smallest emitter, Crown, Cork and Seal, was assessed for 100 tons last year, and the largest, Champion International, was assessed for 9,744 tons. According to Cody, the agency’s Title V fees are “about the lowest in the country.”

• Granted five permits to operate, and one permit to construct.

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