A change in the air?

Skies in the Asheville area have become so poisoned with smog that state regulators considered our air healthy to breathe only one out of four days last summer. Between 1982 and 1994, the incidence of asthma in WNC’s children shot up by 72 percent, according to the American Lung Association. Conservation experts say the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now the country’s most polluted national park. And scientific surveys reveal that more than three-fourths of the trees at elevations over 4,500 feet are dying or dead from acid rain.

These and other harsh statistics — plus the fact that, more and more, you simply can’t see the mountains for the haze — have driven angry local residents to pack recent public hearings on air pollution, and have drawn a stream of elected officials to the mountains to announce their support for cleaning up the state’s air.

The chief culprit in air pollution is ozone — a highly reactive gas that forms when sunlight cooks volatile organic compounds (VOCs) together with nitrogen oxide (NOx). VOCs come from such diverse sources as vapors escaping from gas-station pumps, furniture paint and varnish, and cleaning solvents.

The most significant cause of ozone, however, is nitrogen oxide. This byproduct of fossil-fuel combustion comes mainly from two sources: coal-fired electric power plants, and gas- and diesel-powered automobiles. Until recently, North Carolina’s aging power plants escaped federal mandates to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions through a loophole in the 1970 Clean Air Act that “grandfathered” older plants. Meanwhile, the average number of miles traveled each year by the cars, trucks and SUVs in this state has risen 150 percent over the last 25 years.

But two recent events held in Asheville, just days apart — a state-sponsored public hearing on power-plant emissions and a gubernatorial press conference introducing low-sulfur gasoline — may signal a change for the better in North Carolina’s air (the eighth worst in the nation for nitrogen oxide pollution, according to national environmental groups).

“NO-Xcuses”: Record crowd attends hearing on power-plant emissions

“Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Franklin and now Asheville — we’ve saved the best for last. This is the largest group that we’ve had at any of these meetings,” Robert Graham of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission told the near-capacity audience of WNC residents who packed UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium on July 27 to comment on three different proposals for reducing nitrogen oxide emissions from Duke Power and Carolina Power & Light’s coal-fired power plants. The 14 plants “account for about half of our ozone-forming emissions statewide,” according to Bill Holman, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). “It’s time for utility companies to deal with their share of the ozone problem,” declared Holman in a recent press release.

Wearing bright yellow stickers proclaiming “80% — NO-Xcuses” that had been passed out at a rally held just before the hearing, the overwhelming majority of the 80-some people who signed up to speak at the public hearing (including congressional candidate Sam Neill) supported the most stringent proposal: Cut nitrogen oxide emissions from all of North Carolina’s power plants by 80 percent (from 1998 levels) by 2007. The proposal was advanced by the Clean Air Coalition — composed of various regional environmental groups — which maintains that this level of reduction is needed to achieve clean air, based on EPA mandates and scientific studies.

Lou Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League told the EMC that the 80-percent reduction “is possible through the use of selective catalytic reduction controls, which have achieved a 92-percent nitrogen oxide reduction at other coal-fired utility boilers. And this level of pollution reduction would raise the average North Carolina household electric bill only about $1.20 per month.”

The power companies, meanwhile, propose a more gradual 35-percent reduction by 2007. Company representatives reported that they’ve already made significant reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions (40 percent from Duke Power’s plants since 1995, according to Vice President Curtis Davis), and are willing to make more “once the scientific and legal issues are resolved” — a phrase repeated by several speakers. Chuck Walkid, CP&L’s air-quality compliance officer, elicited boos from the crowd after repeatedly criticizing “environmental interest groups” and objecting to the EPA’s “NOx SIP Call” (the federal agency’s recommended state implementation plan for emissions reduction, which is the basis for the Clean Air Coalition’s proposal). The plan, he said, underestimates North Carolina’s rate of growth and demand for electric power.

A third proposal, offered by the EMC, splits the difference between the environmentalists’ and the power companies’ proposals. It would require a roughly 50-percent reduction from 2000 levels by 2007. Next month the EMC will issue whatever final rules it decides on.

Gov. Hunt and BP Amoco announce new low-sulfur gas

Against the lush, green backdrop of the North Carolina Arboretum, Gov. Jim Hunt announced at an Aug. 3 press conference in Asheville that BP Amoco has voluntarily begun offering motorists gasoline that contains only 30 parts per million of sulfur (compared to 180 ppm in conventional gas). The resulting cut in nitrogen oxide emissions will be equivalent to removing nearly 6,700 vehicles from North Carolina’s roads each day, according to the company and DENR.

Cars, trucks, lawn mowers and other gas-powered engines account for most of the rest of the state’s nitrogen oxide emissions; new state rules will soon require a 10-percent reduction in such mobile-source nitrogen oxide pollutants by 2004, according to Hunt.

Spokespersons for BP Amoco say that “rather than wait for scientific conclusions about global warming and climate change,” or waiting “until regulations require us to act,” the London-based company has decided to begin makeing low-sulfur fuel available now, year-round, at its 51 stations in the Asheville area and its 365 stations in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh/Durham (which the EPA has recently declared “nonattainment areas”). For now, the company says it can refine low-sulfur gas only in premium grades, because these are already lowest in sulfur, but it plans to offer the cleaner gas in all grades as soon as possible. Another benefit of removing sulfur, says North Carolina Petroleum Council Director William Weatherspoon, is that high amounts of the chemical can poison cars’ catalytic converters.

The governor, who signed a clean-air package into law last year, offered some further suggestions to state residents for reducing mobile-source ozone pollution: “Let’s fill our gasoline tanks after sundown. Let’s not top off the tank. These are things that result in the pollutants going into the air. Let’s mow our lawns late in the day, if we have to mow them. I told my wife that’s what she should do,” he joked. “Let’s not drive during lunch time — that’s when the ozone levels just shoot up. Bring a brown bag, or walk to lunch.”

Hunt also referred to North Carolina Arboretum Director George Briggs‘ offhand remark about “needing another highway to handle all these visitors” to the well-attended press conference.

“Maybe there’s a better way,” said Hunt. “What about a little [public] transit up here? … Let’s work on some transit, both here and across North Carolina. That’s one of the ways we clean up our air.”

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