WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency Director Jim Cody usurped the power of his board of directors last month, just days after he informed them of his intention to resign, effective Sept. 1, from the troubled agency.
On June 17, when agency staff discovered a mobile asphalt plant operating in Buncombe County without a permit, they ordered its operator, International Aggregates, to shut it down until the air-agency board could vote on the company’s request for a permit to operate. Staff also informed Cody about the situation.
“I took it on myself to give [the company] authorization to operate at the Swannanoa site for three months,” Cody told the board at its July 12 meeting.
“I’m pretty upset,” was Vice Chair Nelda Holder‘s reaction. “It is a very serious problem,” she told Cody, “to have someone who ignored agency instructions then be given permission to operate — in violation of our procedures.”
Asheville appointee Arlis Queen declared, “You resigned on the 14th of June. You should go. You should go.”
Staff Engineer Greg Davis assured the board that the correct notification and enforcement protocols were being applied to International Aggregates’ now-operating facility.
But Queen was not comforted. “With this type of [process], we’re never going to have the public’s trust,” he warned.
Cody explained his action, saying International Aggregates has a valid state permit to operate portable asphalt plants in 33 other locations in North Carolina.
This permit does not apply to Buncombe County, however, which is one of four North Carolina counties that issue air-pollution permits independently of the state air-quality agency.
Cody noted that the company had submitted a request for a permit, but it had come too late to be put on the June meeting agenda of the agency board, meaning that the company would have had to wait until July for a board decision.
The board’s newest member, Dr. Richard Maas — appointed earlier this month by Buncombe County commissioners — was slightly more conciliatory. “I would go ahead and approve the permit,” he said, but he urged that the company be fined, adding, “The fine should be substantial, to assure that [International Aggregates does] not make a profit by operating illegally.”
With Queen opposing, the board voted 5-1 to approve International Aggregate’s request for a permit to operate. (Haywood County representative Tom Rhodarmer was not present at the meeting.)
At the end of the meeting, when staff asked for direction from the board regarding how much to fine International Aggregates, board members nodded in agreement to Maas’ insistence that the fine be large enough to preclude the company from making a profit during the time it operated illegally.
Adjusting the agency pay scale
Why are all employees in this agency in the lowest quartile [of the county pay scale]?” Maas asked.
Cody told the board that all personnel job descriptions and pay grades within the agency were being re-evaluated and compared with similar positions in Buncombe County government.
“The county commissioners now have their eyes on this agency,” Mass declared. “If we are exploring the hiring of a new director, if we are to upgrade this to a model agency, we need to get the very best director and upgrade the wages. We need a director who can lead us in a new direction. The people I am aware of who can do this will not apply at the current salary level,” he said.
Outgoing director Cody’s annual wage is about $48,000. “It is the lowest [salary] paid to a department head in the county,” Cody explained in a telephone interview, the day after the meeting.
Chairman Doug Clark and Maas agreed to talk with County Manager Wanda Greene and the Buncombe County commissioners about the agency pay scale.
On a motion by Maas, the board unanimously agreed that any pay increases obtained for agency staff will be retroactive to the July meeting.
Permits to emit
The board discussed and voted on a series of local industries’ requests for permits to construct and/or operate, as well as “Title V” permits. (Results are detailed in the accompanying sidebar, “Permits approved.”) Agency engineers and inspectors were present at the meeting to answer questions about the permit requests.
In a striking break from the pattern of previous agency board meetings, Maas, who is director of the UNCA Environmental Studies Department, asked numerous technical questions. For example, he asked detailed questions about Kearfott Guidance and Navigation Corp.’s request for a permit to construct a trichloroethylene recycling unit. Maas explained the reason for his caution: “If anything goes wrong, there could be a massive release of trichloroethylene. We don’t want them out there … experimenting with distilling solvents.”
Before voting on the Title V-permit requests, Maas expressed confidence in the agency’s inspectors and engineers. Larger pollution sources are required, by the federal 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment, to obtain Title V permits. Maas noted that the permits “are complex … [and] beyond the scope of the board to scrutinize effectively. We have to rely on staff … [who] have done a thorough job of researching and putting together [the information].”
After a lengthy discussion, the board agreed 5-1 (Queen opposing) to suspend until further notice the agency’s policy of declaring what days are suitable for open burning. The decision leaves the regulation of open burning in the state’s hands.
Queen objected to the change, wanting to know, “How will we determine if this is working? What do we have in place to evaluate?”
Haywood and Buncombe residents have complained about having to obtain two permits: one from the N.C. Forest Service and one from the local air agency. Under the board’s new policy, only one permit will be required, which will be issued by the Forest Service.
According to Tommy Thompson, a forester with the state Division of Forest Resources, his agency has no power to fine violators (unlike the local air agency). However, he said, applicants for the 30-day permits will be told that burning is “discouraged” on Orange Ozone-Alert days (when the Pollutant Standard Index is between 101 and 150, which is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups”) and “prohibited” on Red Ozone-Alert Days (when the PSI is projected to exceed 151, which is considered “generally unhealthy”).
The state’s nonprosecution policy drew skeptical reactions from some board members and members of the public. “[The agency is] not giving up the ability to ban burning on Red Ozone- Alert days,” declared Maas. If a determination of an air-pollution emergency is made, the agency can still declare a burning ban in Haywood and Buncombe counties, in cooperation with the Forest Service, he said.
In order to monitor the effectiveness of the state’s voluntary-compliance approach, Maas requested that agency staff keep track of the number of complaints received.
“You’re putting too much responsibility on citizens and not making it clear enough,” complained Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air Chairperson Hazel Fobes. She also urged that permit information be provided in both Spanish and English.
Vera Guise, a new appointee to the agency’s Citizen Advisory Board, said, “The more you can simplify, the better.” She cautioned, “Don’t do anything to weaken your authority … Do whatever is necessary to raise … accessibility and credibility of this board’s authority to monitor air quality in this county.”
During the general discussion of open-burning, Maas asked the staff to bring in more chairs, after he noticed that several members of the public had no place to sit.. “If we don’t have enough [chairs], we’ll have to buy some more,” he commented, which prompted one audience member to quip, “They sure have enough in the fund balance to do that!”
Board’s legal counsel to remain temporarily
“I’ll stay until you get somebody else,” promised agency Attorney Billy Clarke, who served as legal counsel for nearly a year before the board signed a one-year agreement in May with his firm, Roberts & Stevens, for legal services — with Clarke as the designated lawyer.
At the board’s June meeting, a reporter with the Mountain Sentinel notified the board that his paper had filed suit against Clarke, claiming he has a conflict of interest. Later in the month, Clarke resigned.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” Clarke noted, “but it has been a good experience. I know there are some concerns about the manner and method [of how] I became counsel,” he acknowledged. “I would advise you to advertise the position.”
“I hate to see you go,” said Chairman Clark.
The board agreed unanimously to advertise for letters of interest in the position.
Appeals process to be documented
The board unanimously agreed to changes in the way the agency handles appeals process by those who have been cited for violating agency rules. Attorney Clarke went over, and made slight changes to, his prior recommendations, which urge the board to keep formal records of appeals and testimony before the board.
“Any decision of the board can be appealed to Superior Court,” Clarke noted, which may then demand to see the agency’s records.
New members appointed to Citizens Advisory Board
The board opened the door to additional appointments to its Citizens Advisory Board, approving four new members: Dr. Lindsey Bridges, Gordon Meyers, Pat Skalski and Hazel Fobes.
Board member Ronald Boone abstained from voting, explaining that he was reluctant to approve the new appointments because “I voted last time not to add more members.”
“We could have 100 [on the advisory board], if they bring something to the table,” observed Chairman Clark.
Before the three-and-a-half hour meeting was over, Maas made a motion that regular business meetings be held at least once a month. The board unanimously agreed to meet on the second Monday of each month, at 5 p.m.
Opening the final segment of this animated meeting, Buncombe resident Jerry Rice voiced his concern about the cumulative effect of air toxins emitted in Buncombe County: “I think we need to know and let the community know what is hanging over our heads,” he said. “We’re in an inversion area. We need to look at this.”
Taxpayers for Accountable Government Chairperson Rachel Queen told board members she was happy about their decision earlier in the meeting to hold monthly meetings. But she advised caution regarding their decision to allow last-minute changes to meeting agendas. “The public should not be blind-sided. Modification of the agenda should only be in an emergency situation,” she said.
Peter Dawes, who identified himself as a “long-time critic,” told the board, “I don’t think you should be here. The state should do it.” He added, “The best thing Mr. Cody can do is leave today and never come back.”
Cody, who seemed unruffled by the repeated criticisms aimed his way, announced at the end of the meeting that he would, as has been customary for some time, be taking board members to dinner (to the Three Brothers Restaurant this time) — the tab being picked up by the agency. Then he extended the dinner invitation to any and all in the audience. “Of course, you’ll have to pay for it yourself,” he added.
The board voted unanimously to renew five permits to operate:
• APAC Carolina-Enka, an asphalt-production facility,
• Colbond (Akzo-Nobel), a synthetic-fiber manufacturer in Enka,
• Anvil Knitwear, a textile operation in Swannanoa,
• Square D Company, an electrical-component manufacturer in Emma, and
• Nova Kitchen & Bath in Asheville.
The board voted 5-1 (Queen opposed) to grant a permit to operate to:
• International Aggregates RAP Crusher, permit for portable unit, applicable to three sites, in Enka, Weaverville and Swannanoa.
The board approved the following new permits to construct:
• Cooper Bussman, a fuse-production line, in Black Mountain,
• Hedrick Grovestone, an aggregate feed system, in Swannanoa,
• Kearfott, a trichloroethylene recycling unit, in Black Mountain,
• Kimball, two spray-paint booths, in Weaverville,
• Colbond (Azko-Nobel), a new winding operation, in Enka
• Eaton Cutler-Hammer, a bus-terminal-insulation manufacturing line, in Arden, and
• Carolina Pet Services, a larger, replacement crematory unit, in Waynesville.
The board unanimously approved the following Title V permits:
• Day International Corporation, a printing-blanket manufacturer on Glen Bridge Road in Arden, and