Clearing the air

“Where in the hell are we, how in the hell did we get here, and where in the hell do we go from here?” Doug Clark, board chairman of the embattled Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency, asked rhetorically during the board’s most recent meeting.

Citizens who spoke at the stormy June 14 meeting demanded that Clark resign (along with two fellow board members). APCA Vice Chair Nelda Holder interrogated him about his almost two-month absence during what appears to have been a particularly critical period for the agency. The Mountain Sentinel informed the board that it had filed suit against the agency’s attorney, William Clarke claiming that he has a conflict of interest. And APCA Director Jim Cody first blew up (declaring, “I’ve had enough of this shit!,” in response to criticism from board member Arlis Queen) — and then submitted his resignation. Meanwhile, the state Division of Air Quality’s recent review of the agency’s operations (released April 30) cited several serious problems — such as the lack of documentation for permits, and the agency’s practice of calling facilities before making inspections.

That was when Clark paused to share what he said had been his college professor’s synopsis of Dante’s Inferno.

Could things get any hotter? Yes. Soon after the June 14 meeting, longtime board member Roy “Doc” Roberts submitted his resignation, as did agency attorney Clarke. And the presence of Buncombe County Commissioner David Young at the tense meeting sent a clear signal that other board members may be on the way out: Both Chairman Clark’s and member Ron Boone‘s terms expire Aug. 1, and several county commissioners say they’re leaning toward reforming the agency by putting new faces on its board.

“They’ve got to make some changes,” Young remarked after the tumultuous meeting. “People are looking to [agency board members] and asking them, ‘What are you doing to improve our air quality?'”

Into the frying pan

How can the APCA do a better job of protecting air quality? For several citizens who spoke at the meeting, the short answer seemed to be: Get new leadership — and, if you can’t turn things around, step down.

“Any organization is as good as its leadership. … A board cannot run without its chair,” proclaimed Rachel Queen of Taxpayers for Accountable Government, after hearing Holder chastise Clark for his extended, unexplained absence — and unavailability — this spring. During that time, the state’s critical report was released to Clark (and, possibly, Cody) — but it was not distributed to fellow board members or the public in a timely manner, Holder had noted. Queen — apparently unmoved by Clark’s remark that he was going to let her speak because she’s prettier than her husband, agency board member Arlis Queen — added, bluntly, “I think you should resign, Mr. Clark.”

Rachel Queen didn’t stop there: She demanded Boone’s resignation, as well, arguing that it is a conflict of interest for a former agency director (and former agency consultant) to serve on the board.

As for the DAQ’s critical report, Rachel Queen urged, “It’s time that y’all recognized there are problems here.” (Some board members had remarked that the report “wasn’t so bad.”) “It’s time for people to step aside if they can’t be objective and are wearing blinders. … They interfere with progress,” she maintained, concluding, “We all have something at stake here, and it’s our health.”

Another area resident reported that his daughter in Philadelphia sees headlines about the air-quality problems in Western North Carolina. “Dang if I ain’t tired of hearing this!” he told board members, urging them, “We should be pulling together.”

And Tony Candler — although highly critical of board member Queen — also called for the agency and its board to move forward … or risk, as he said, “being pulled under the wagon.”

Buncombe County resident Jerry Rice reiterated comments he’s often made before the board: Members must be more responsive to the public. He also urged the board and agency employees to seek more assistance from the state, particularly because much of the air pollution in WNC flows across state lines from other areas.

Another Buncombe resident, Don Yelton, also directed the board to be more proactive: “You can’t stick your head in the French Broad River waters and ignore air pollution,” he observed. Yelton called on the agency to immediately end its practice of phoning local businesses before making inspections, and follow the state DAQ’s recommendation that inspections be unannounced.

“To announce [inspections] takes away from your authority,” agreed WNC resident Mike Morgan. “If I knew an inspector was coming, I would clean up.”

Another resident went further, arguing that if board members can’t turn things around, the agency should hand over its duties to the state and turn its Mount Carmel Road office into a library. (The APCA regulates and monitors air-pollution-control measures in Buncombe and Haywood counties; all but four the state’s 100 counties are state regulated and don’t have local air-pollution agencies)

And into the fire

Such comments haven’t been lost on the Buncombe County Commissioners.

“We’ve got three appointments to make,” responds Young, when asked what the commissioners can do to move things forward. “Some [agency board members] say they’re willing to serve again. But let’s look at all the candidates and what they say they’re willing to do to change.”

“They need to follow the recommendations DAQ made,” says David Gantt, who’s read the state’s full report and terms its findings “frightening revelations.” Acknowledging that the Buncombe commissioners haven’t overseen the board as closely as they should have, Gantt reflects, “We’ve got to ride herd on them and make sure the laws of the state are being followed. … I think we’ll be looking real close at [the pending] reappointments. … I would like to see us appoint people who are willing to change.”

One shift Gantt would like to see is shortening board terms from six years to two or three years. Long terms, he figures, promote a “go-along” mentality. With shorter terms, on the other hand, “You get more accountability, right off the bat.”

He’s also anxious to see who board members hire to replace Cody: Gantt says that’s a great opportunity for the agency to achieve better management, better employee training, and better cooperation with the state.

But Gantt’s mindful of the end results, warning, “Let’s put people in there who will turn [this agency] around. If they can’t do that, we’ve got to look at dissolving the board.”

Positive heat

“How can we get cleaner air here?” asks Vice Chair Holder. That’s the question she feels board members need to address, if the agency is to move forward.

“What I would hope to see with these changes” — she says about the spurt of resignations and the DAQ’s findings — “is for the board to both be, and be perceived as, a proactive agency for air quality.” The agency has done some things well, notes Holder — citing, for example, the DAQ’s praise for the APCA’s compliance policies.

But, speaking about the region’s prevalent air-quality problems — particularly the ozone haze that limits visibility and endangers our health — Holder remarks, “Just handling the regulations is not enough. We’ve been doing that, and air quality is worse. … The question is, ‘What can we be doing, proactively, to decrease the amount of air pollution in WNC?'”

Holder suggests that the board begin looking at the cumulative effects of all the local sources of air pollution — including both industrial and mobile sources, such as vehicles. Board members need to find out how much of WNC’s air pollution originates outside the region and state, she continues. And the board also must do a better job of educating the public and involving it in the solutions. “We can’t just blame [air pollution] on somebody else. There are so many ways to act in a positive way, for change,” Holder emphasizes.

Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick adds, “Forgive the pun, but fresh air on the board and in a new director would be good.” She’d like to see better cooperation between the board and agency staff, a comprehensive search for a new director, and DAQ’s recommendations implemented immediately. “It’s not that the board and agency haven’t been doing a good job. But when you’re talking about our health, they need to do an outstanding job,” Sitnick comments. As for ongoing turf wars that have plagued the board (some board members went to great lengths to block the election of a city appointee as chair last year), Sitnick adds, “When you’re talking about the air, we’re all in this together. It’s not about Buncombe County air, or city air or Haywood County air.”

Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air representative Hazel Fobes — who played a pivotal role in persuading the state to review the agency — wrote to APCA board members: “Your charge — Asheville, Buncombe County, Haywood County, the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency and its Board — is to regulate to the best of your ability those toxic air pollutants that are increasing [and] causing health hazards and even death. It is a heavy challenge, demanding from the Agency staff and its Board wisdom, integrity, energy and health, alert minds and bodies. … We expect you to fulfill your duties.”

The state’s report

The N.C. Division of Air Quality reviewed the APCA’s day-to-day operations, including its permitting procedures, compliance with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and (a dreaded word to some) the paperwork that documents what the agency does, particularly in its permitting procedures.

The DAQ found the agency seriously deficient in that regard, charging that the lack of documentation makes it difficult to track local businesses’ equipment changes and emissions problems. The report states: “There is no documentation in the permitting files that [EPA and DAQ procedures] are being followed. No written technical or engineering review was found in any files reviewed to support the issuance of a permit, including permit renewals. … Furthermore, it was discovered that the applicability of the air toxics regulation had been improperly applied since the start of the air toxics program in 1990.”

The state also criticized the agency’s practice of notifying facilities before inspecting them: “This practice should be discouraged and unannounced inspections should be performed,” the report reads. The DAQ gave the agency six months to initiate changes to straighten out these problems.

The state has the authority to dissolve the agency if the problems aren’t corrected; but the DAQ’s recommendations lean toward working cooperatively with the APCA: “It should be noted that these recommendations will be part of an ongoing process that may take a year or more to complete,” the report reads.

And, on a positive note, the state praised the APCA’s “two excellent compliance policies that go beyond the requirements of the regulations,” and indicated that the agency has “no significant compliance problems.” In other words, the agency appears to be getting local facilities to comply with state and federal guidelines — but it isn’t adequately documenting what it does. The state’s report also notes that, “because of the lack of documentation it is difficult to assess appropriateness of [the APCA’s] enforcement program.”

The DAQ report makes the following recommendations, giving the agency six months to begin implementing them before the state conducts a follow-up review this fall:

• WNCRAPCA staff should begin and continue developing a proficiency in the areas of PSD and Air Toxics review.

• WNCRAPCA should develop by January 1, 2000, written procedures for performing permit reviews and permit analysis in order to improve the current insufficient permit file documentation and to insure consistent application of the agency’s policies.

• WNCRAPCA staff should attend the information exchange meetings routinely conducted by DAQ such as the Permit Workgroup and Compliance Workgroup meetings.

• WNCRAPCA should develop formal written procedures for conducting compliance inspections, documenting compliance inspections, documenting compliance and initiating enforcement actions, while paying close attention to file documentation. In addition, they should immediately initiate unannounced compliance inspections.

• WNCRAPCA should develop procedures for a more thorough review of emission inventories. They should at least validate a few calculations from each inventory and verify that the emission factors used are correct.

• WNCRAPCA should develop an asbestos inspections report form or checklist that can be utilized for all inspections of renovation and demolition projects.

• WNCRAPCA should develop formal procedures to provide for public awareness and input, such as an Internet Web site.

• WNCRAPCA should consider developing a strategic air quality plan.”

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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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