A bagful of coal, or credible evidence?

For decades, the coal trains have rumbled through Asheville every few days , hauling 5,000 tons of the fossil fuel from the mines of West Virginia to the Carolina Power & Light plant by Lake Julian. And for decades, CP&L chemists have analyzed a bagful of coal samples scooped each day from the conveyor belts that funnel the coal into pulverizers, which feed the powdered coal into 16 blowtorchlike burners. The sulfur content of these daily composite samples is reported to local air-quality officials each month.

According to CP&L’s lawyers and environmental managers, that’s all the company is required to do to prove that the thick smoke streaming out of the plant’s two smokestacks is in compliance with its air-pollution permit. Each stack’s emission of sulfur dioxide (SO<->2<->) is limited to 2.3 pounds per million BTUs of heat generated.

But air-pollution inspectors from the WNC Air Quality Agency disagree. They maintain that EPA rules allow them to use any “credible evidence” they observe in their inspections to determine whether the plant is in compliance.

That credible evidence, say the agency’s staff and attorney, includes readings from sulfur-dioxide monitors (called SIMMs) that were installed in both smokestacks five years ago, as required by the federal Clean Air Act. The monitors measure SO<->2<-> emissions directly, and a reading on Nov. 1, 1999 — when Greg Davis conducted the air agency’s first unannounced inspection of the facility — indicated excess emissions from one smokestack of .2 pounds per million BTUs.

Testifying at an appeals hearing on June 29, Davis was intensely cross-examined by attorneys for both the agency and the power company. He stated that a shift supervisor’s log showed that CP&L operators had discovered the problem at 1:51 p.m. the previous day and had been unsuccessfully trying to lower the sulfur-dioxide output by burning oil as well as coal. No one gave Davis that information. But when he noticed the high SIMM reading, he began asking questions.

CP&L is legally required to notify the air-quality agency if SO<->2<-> levels exceed the limit for four hours.

Davis also testified that monitoring-room personnel told him they were remaining in compliance by averaging the readings from both smokestacks — a procedure that is not allowed, and that CP&L personnel have denied doing, say company attorneys.

CP&L’s explanation for the excess sulfur-dioxide emission is that Peabody Coal had mistakenly routed to Asheville four or five carloads of high-sulfur coal intended for South Carolina, which has less stringent SO<->2<-> regulations. But the sulfur content of the fuel sample sent to Lumberton for analysis was in compliance with North Carolina regulations because it was a mixed sample.

“Your position is [that you’re] in violation by stack limitation — but you claim compliance by fuel analysis?” asked AQA attorney Jim Siemens. Chuck Waechild, the plant’s environmental-quality supervisor, replied: “The SIMMs data are used as a management tool for the operators — as guides to maintain environmental specifications.” Waechild, who was a state air-quality regulator from 1974 to 1990, said that, in the last five years, stack monitors at other CP&L plants around the state had indicated excessive emissions, but fuel analysis had been in compliance. In each case, the state Division of Air Quality did no more than request a follow-up letter, but CP&L was also notified that the state has been considering a compliance-enforcement policy to address excessive emissions recorded by SIMMs. (The fuel-analysis method was established 20 years ago, when stack-monitoring technology was crude and prohibitively expensive.)

Waechild and CP&L attorney Doug Wilson argued that the notice of violation and $2,500 fine issued to the utility are unfair because the agency never notified the plant or the public that it would begin punishing stack violations, and because the policy is inconsistent with the state’s. Just three years ago, when the plant reported excess SO<->2<-> recorded by its stack monitors, the director, Jim Cody, told plant officials that as long as they reported and corrected the problem, and as long as fuel analysis was in compliance, no violation notice would be issued. CP&L representatives did not explain, however, why last November’s incident had gone unreported until Davis discovered it, nearly a day after the problem began.

Current AQA Director Bob Camby defended his decision to impose a penalty based on the SIMMs evidence. “The credible-evidence rule was set up [by the Clean Air Act] because a monthly, weekly or yearly state test is not sufficient to show continuous compliance,” he testified. Camby also noted that SIMMs monitoring is used nationwide to demonstrate compliance.

Camby is a former operations manager at the Lake Julian plant, where he worked from 1977 to 1996. He said that fuel analysis used to be done on-site, which allowed the sulfur content of coal shipments to be determined within 30 hours — while that coal was being burned (or even before). Then, he said, CP&L “made an economic decision,” which he was not involved in, to send the samples to Lumberton for analysis. Because of the weeklong turnaround, a shipment’s sulfur content now isn’t known until after the coal has already been burned.

Camby also noted that the method of stack-averaging to remain in compliance had been an informal but common procedure when he worked at the plant. “You look at one that shows 2.3, one that shows 2.5, and they average to 2.4.” Reports to regulators couldn’t be averaged, however, because they show the stacks’ readings separately.

Under questioning by Wilson, Camby admitted that he’d left the plant under less than favorable circumstances. A reorganization eliminated his job, and he took early retirement. Camby sued CP&L but lost the lawsuit — and his severance package as well.

“Didn’t that leave you with animosity?” Wilson asked, before Siemens objected to the attempt to claim bias.

AQA Appeals Officer Arlis Queen will make his recommendation to the AQA board at its August meeting. In May, CP&L tried unsuccessfully to settle the case quietly by offering to contribute double the amount of the fine to the AQA’s proposed Clean Air Community Trust Fund, presumably in return for dropping the violation notice.

Nonattainment status could stall I-26

“Ozone nonattainment status is coming to Buncombe County and much of WNC as early as January 2001. With it will come greater scrutiny of major industrial sources and highway projects. … [But] ozone nonattainment will not end the potential for vigorous economic growth in Buncombe County or WNC. On the contrary, and perhaps unfortunately, ozone nonattainment marks a ‘critical mass’ of population.”

These were the conclusions of AQA engineer Chuck Sams, as presented to the agency board at its July 10 meeting. The report, “Implications of Nonattainment,” can be seen on the agency’s Web site (http://www.wncair.org).

“Nonattainment areas” are regions where ozone pollution has reached dangerous levels, triggering severe federal restrictions on major new sources of nitrous oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the chemical components of ozone.

“During 1997, EPA and NC established a new primary 8-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone of 0.08 parts per million (ppm),” according to Sams’ report. “If monitoring data shows a three year, 8-hour average ozone concentration above this value … the area near the affecting monitor is said to not meet the standard, and the NAA [nonattainment area] designation process begins.”

Gov. Jim Hunt has sent recommendations to the EPA for the boundaries of North Carolina’s nonattainment areas, which include all of the Great Smoky Mountains and large swaths of local ridge tops above 4,000 feet. But because ozone readings at the agency’s valley monitors at Bent Creek and in downtown Waynesville have pushed Buncombe, Madison and Haywood counties into nonattainment, the EPA may expand Hunt’s boundaries to include the rapidly developing lowlands now rather than waiting another year.

In contrast to badly afflicted urban areas such as Charlotte and Raleigh, WNC’s valleys are only marginally in nonattainment. The only industrial facilities that the status would affect are the largest sources of NOx and VOCs — such as the CP&L plant, BASF and Day International — and then only if these plants added new facilities that increased their emissions to more than 40 tons a year. The companies would then have to reduce emissions from other parts of their operations or make arrangements with other local ozone-emitting companies to reduce their emissions.

But new highway construction — particularly the controversial I-26 Connector project — will probably be modified and perhaps even halted. According to Sams’ report, if computer modeling indicates that a project will increase concentrations during the critical ozone season, “that project, as designed, will be rejected from the state Transportation Implementation Plan (i.e., it will not be built).” On the other hand, “if through the planning process [involving the EPA, the federal Department of Transportation, and various regional, state and local government agencies, including the AQA and the NC-DOT], a suitable alternative construction scenario can be developed which does not worsen ozone levels, that project may be built.”

When asked whether NC-DOT, which would conduct the modeling, might not attempt to bias the results in favor of its current massive construction proposal, Sams conceded, “There’s always ways to make modeling results more or less conservative.” But the process would probably be kept open to public scrutiny. “They’d be crazy not to,” he said.

Carolina McCready, a member of the air agency’s Citizens’ Advisory Council, said after the meeting that she’s looking forward to nonattainment status for Buncombe County.

“The environmentalist in me is just jumping up and down about this,” she told the Xpress. “Hopefully, it will open up doors to alternative technologies, energy efficiency and transportation issues. I think on a broader scope it will also give a reason for residents, industry, government, nonprofits, small businesses and environmentalists to work together towards a common goal. That could build new bridges … and create new allies that might not otherwise work together.”

Asphalt manufacturer praised for reducing odor

Among the many by-products of North Carolina’s aggressive road-building program are the asphalt-manufacturing plants that have sprung up — to the chagrin of neighboring residents, who frequently complain to air-quality regulators about the plants’ noise and odor. One local facility, however, won praise from outgoing AQA board member Don Randolph (a Haywood County appointee) for installing innovative odor-reduction technology, which AQA inspectors noticed during an inspection review.

APAC Carolina’s Grove Stone facility on Old Hwy. 70 in Swannanoa recently installed a metal shroud around its mixing unit, a rubber curtain shielding its receiving-truck drop zone, and a distillation unit containing metal shavings to distill vapors containing hydrogen sulfide from its heated asphalt tank. These measures go above and beyond the legal requirements for containing liquid-asphalt emissions, agency staff told the board.

“Somebody ought to send a copy of this inspection review to the plant at Franklin,” Randolph said. A controversial new asphalt-manufacturing plant there recently drew the ire of Macon County residents and environmental activists — and the attention of the state Environmental Management Commission — after county commissioners and local representatives of the state Division of Air Quality approved the plant without allowing input from the public.

State approves interlocal agreement; county appoints board members

The Environmental Management Commission, meeting in Raleigh on July 13, approved the interlocal agreement drawn up between Asheville and Buncombe County to re-establish the air agency following Haywood County’s withdrawal. The 13-member commission voted unanimously for approval, despite objections from members of the Council of Independent Business Owners (see last week’s Xpress). Under the agreement, the old WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency has been renamed the “Western North Carolina Air Quality Agency.”

On July 11, the Buncombe County commissioners appointed a new board member to the agency, Dr. Lewis Patrie of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and re-appointed incumbents Alan McKenzie and Doug Clark. Clark will serve a two-year term, Patrie four years, and McKenzie six. Nelda Holder and Arlis Queen will continue to serve as the city’s appointees.

Missing from the new board will be Haywood County appointees Randolph and Tom Rhodarmer, whom the agency honored with a farewell dinner at the end of the July 10 meeting.

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