Breaking old habits

Under the continuing glare of public scrutiny, the board of the Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control Agency met on Sept. 13 to consider the first fruits of its recent reforms.

Driving the meeting’s agenda was the state’s recent audit of the troubled agency. More than an hour was devoted to a status report from interim Director Bob Camby, describing the agency’s progress in implementing the state’s numerous recommendations, including changes to promote better record keeping, more consistent written policies, unannounced inspections, and a strategic air-quality plan.

Surprise inspections — first reports from the field

“[Agency staff] should immediately initiate unannounced compliance inspections” of air-pollution sources, concluded the January 1999 administrative audit of the agency by the state Division of Air Quality. The local agency has begun making such visits, and, in at least one instance so far, the procedure identified a company that, according to board member Arlis Queen, “had tried to sneak by on some things.”

The concerns raised during the unannounced inspection of Arden lawn-equipment producer Pe-Co have since been rectified, staff engineer Kevin Lance noted during the board’s discussion of that company’s application to renew its permit. The board granted Pe-Co’s renewal request, given Camby’s assurance that — in accordance with another of the state audit’s recommendations — the agency has asked Pe-Co to come up with a maintenance plan spelling out how the company will keep its pollution-control equipment in compliance.

But the new inspections policy does have some drawbacks, Camby told the board. Arriving unannounced can wreak havoc at a plant with only one “environmental guy” who is familiar with the control equipment, Camby said. That person may also be in charge of maintenance and safety, or be off-site or in the middle of a major equipment rebuild. At one plant, inspectors discovered that the man they normally spoke with was on vacation. The company was forced, at no small expense, to call in an outside consultant to answer inspectors’ questions.

The agency board’s newest member, Buncombe County Medical Society Director Alan McKenzie, asked Camby to look into how other agencies handle inspections. For example, how does the state do them? he asked.

“Well,” Camby replied, “the state says they do all their inspections unannounced.”

“That is not true,” declared longtime board member Tom Rhodarmer. “The public-relations office says … this is the way they do it, but that’s not the way they do it. … [Inspectors for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources] called me every time,” he said, within a week before they conducted their supposedly unannounced hazardous-waste inspections at Mark Four/Dayco’s now-closed Waynesville automotive-parts plant. Rhodarmer was that plant’s on-site manager of environmental health and safety, from 1988 to 1991. The same thing was true — and still is, he added after the meeting — for air-pollution inspections at other plants elsewhere in the state owned by Mark Four/Dayco (for whom he now works as corporate manager of environmental affairs, ensuring regulatory compliance). Individual inspectors often unofficially call the company ahead of time, he said, to make sure the person in charge of environmental affairs will be there on the day they plan to arrive.

No profit till you get a permit

Should a pollution violator get to keep the profits it makes while breaking the law? The board didn’t think so — at least, not last July, when it considered the case of International Aggregates, an asphalt-recycling company that willfully (and for the second time, according to agency staff) tried to get away with operating without a permit, and was improperly let off the hook by Jim Cody, in one of his last actions as agency director.

At that time, agency board member Rick Maas, with the board’s agreement, instructed staff to impose a fine substantial enough to preclude the company from making a profit during the period of its illegal operations, and to report their proposed fine to the board for review.

At the board’s Sept. 13 meeting, Greg Davis announced the fine proposed by staff: $7,200.

“Doesn’t that seem a little low?” Queen asked skeptically.

Davis allowed that it did, but the company owner had claimed that much of his company’s profit that month had been eaten up by hefty payments on new equipment. Camby interjected that, by his calculations, the company was just getting by, making only $2 per ton in profits.

“Are you satisfied $7,200 would eat up their profit?” Queen asked Davis.

“Yes,” Davis replied.

The board was about to vote to approve the penalty when Camby pointed out a problem. If the board sets the fine, doesn’t that preclude the violator from appealing the fine to the board? he asked.

Board members talked it over and agreed that, for the sake of consistent procedure, the board should continue to let agency staff set and issue fines, allowing 30 days for the violator to appeal to the board.

State financial audit to be requested

On a motion by Queen, the board voted unanimously to ask state auditor Ralph Campbell for a financial audit of the agency. The state would bear the cost of the audit, Queen said.

During discussion of the motion, board member Doug Clark expressed skepticism, saying he had once sent a letter to Raleigh making such a request and had never received a reply.

“It was killed politically by the Buncombe County manager and commissioners,” Queen shot back. “That’s the way politics is, Doug — you know that,” he added, before concluding, “I’ve been told that we should request an audit. … As a board, we should welcome it.”

Persuading the agency to submit to a financial audit represented a long-sought personal victory for Queen — who, coincidentally, was announced last week as a co-winner (with his wife, Rachel) of the Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award, for their work with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Accountable Government.

Queen’s tone throughout the meeting was buoyant and decisive. During discussions about permit renewals, he was the only one, from either the board or the public, who voiced specific concerns about any of the facilities under consideration. In the case of concrete distributor Southern Concrete, he instructed staff to “go back two times a year — make sure they follow their maintenance plan.”

By contrast, Haywood County representative (and former board chair) Rhodarmer wore a sullen glare through most of the proceedings. A Haywood County newspaper had recently reported that Rhodarmer could have been dropped from the board for excessive absenteeism, had the board’s current attendance policy been in effect in prior years. The current policy, instigated this summer by Chair Nelda Holder, requires a 60 percent attendance record (the same rate that the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners requires of its appointees to many county boards and commissions). The Enterprise Mountaineer reported several weeks ago that, in the previous 12 months, Rhodarmer had missed three of the agency’s five board meetings, and left one of the other two early. Rhodarmer responded to the criticism in a published opinion piece, in which he attacked the reporter for not getting her facts straight about the date of his appointment to the board.

When the subject of the APCA’s new Web site, www.wncair.org, came up for discussion, Rhodarmer took the opportunity to press his point. “I haven’t looked at it, but I understand there’s a major error on it [concerning] the time I was appointed to the board.” The Web site — the source for the Enterprise Mountaineer story — gives his appointment as Feb. 15, 1991, which Holder pointed out is also the date given in the agency’s information book. Rhodarmer insisted, however, that he was appointed in December 1993, to fill out his predecessor’s term.

The agency’s poor record-keeping could explain the error. At the beginning of the meeting, after correction and approval of the minutes of the two previous meetings, McKenzie requested that these minutes be returned to the staff for correction of grammatical errors, and he further recommended — to nods of approval from both staff and board attorney Jim Siemens — that each meeting’s minutes be circulated among board members for informal approval, before being distributed to the public.

Yet Rhodarmer seemed a little behind the curve when he asked his fellow members if “[we’ve] set up meetings to be monthly now, instead of quarterly.” Several board members spoke up to inform him that the board had done just that — in July.

“You left early,” Queen reminded Rhodarmer.

Meetings to circulate; finalists selected for director position

Attendance may soon be made more convenient for the board’s Haywood County members, who must travel the farthest to attend meetings — normally held at the agency’s office in Buncombe County. Now that the board is meeting 12 times a year, Holder suggested that two of those meetings — starting with November’s meeting — be held in Haywood County. At Maas’ request, and to encourage public participation, the board changed its official starting time for meetings from 5 to 5:15 p.m.

In a closed session, which took place at the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, the board narrowed its list of candidates for a director, to succeed Jim Cody. The search will continue on Sept. 27 and 28, when the board interviews the four finalists.

Asked what qualities agency staff would like to see in a new boss, interim Director Camby relayed staff’s desire that the Director have “good people skills.”

Stomachs were grumbling

One of the board’s few old habits that everyone readily agreed to retain is the tradition of agency taking board members to dinner after the meeting. Queen took pains to point out that the agency does not pay its board members, adding that a meal seems “small compensation to pay.” Any member of the public may also attend, but they must pay their own way. Siemens confirmed that agency members are “free to assemble” without violating open-meetings laws, as long as they don’t discuss board business.

Clark explained the history behind the tradition, as recounted to him by former longtime board member Roy “Doc” Roberts. The pollution-control board, Clark recalled, was originally “just a bunch of businessmen who met at a restaurant on Patton, then had dinner.”

Open-burning rules still hazy

The board tried once again to dissipate the pall of confusion hanging over the rules in Haywood and Buncombe counties regarding the open burning of piled-up debris. Until recently, residents had to obtain permits from both the state Forest Service and the local air agency. In general, however, the agency prohibited open burning on any given day, unless it declared otherwise.

At its July 12 meeting, however, the board tried to simplify matters by changing its rules. It turned the permitting process over to the Forest Service, and scrapped its general prohibition of open burning. Any day would henceforth be an open-burning day — with the exception of “red ozone days,” which would automatically be declared no-burn days. (Residents can call 255-5654 to find out each day’s ozone rating and burn conditions.)

But on Monday night, Holder admitted, “When we voted to change the policy, we stepped into a quagmire.” Board attorney Siemens explained that, to make or change a rule, the agency must promulgate it — which means following standard agency procedures for notifying and soliciting comment from the public.

Furthermore, he noted, the Forest Service permit forms say nothing on them about the burning ban on red-ozone days, so the permits will have to be revised and reprinted.

Finally, the agency must submit its new rules for approval to the state Environmental Management Commission, in Raleigh — a 13-member body appointed by the governor that, according to Maas, makes all environmental rules for the state.

Guessing that the EMC would give the agency “a fair amount of leeway,” Maas consoled board and staff that this was a “good way to get our feet wet in the [rule-making] procedure.”

Public comment

Radio journalist Peter Dawes complained to the board that, shortly before the staff and board shake-up this summer, he had called the agency to report an illegal fire, and had later learned that office staff had identified Dawes to another caller as the original complainant.

Maas assured him that that “should never happen.”

Camby apologized to Dawes, saying “It was back in the bad times.”

Dawes also drew the board’s attention to the burned-out Old Cotton Mill, located in downtown Asheville’s River District. He said its owner, RiverLink, still had not removed asbestos from the building. Queen replied that he had called Cody some time ago about the problem, and added that, if RiverLink does own the property, “they should be told to get that asbestos out of there.”

Journalist Don Yelton asserted that the asbestos in the building “is the same as in the [Asheville Motor] Speedway track,” which old-timers told him had been cut off old pipes.

Rhodarmer questioned the agency’s authority to do anything about the problem — but Maas reminded him that, if asbestos is coming out of the building, the air agency does have the authority to act.

Camby promised to check into it.

Nuggets from the baghouse

[Editor’s note: Industry’s cheapest and most commonly used air-pollution-control device, a “baghouse,” is a box filled with conical or cylindrical filters — like giant vacuum-cleaner bags — that trap particulates in dirty air before it is sent out the smokestack.]

You’ve got to sympathize sometimes with the pickles the beleaguered WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency finds itself in. The other day, Gov. Jim Hunt was traveling west on I-40 through Haywood County with his newly appointed secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bill Holman, when he noticed a large plume of smoke. Holman called the local air agency on the car phone to report it.

As interim agency Director Bob Camby told the story to the agency board, staff inspectors rushed out to find an illegal burn going on — apparently located exactly on the boundary between two properties. The first property owner claimed he didn’t start the fire, but that his neighbor had. The neighbor declared that it wasn’t his doing, said Camby, but rather the first property owner’s. Both vehemently denied that the fire was on their property.

Confronted with this “can of worms,” said Camby, staff may have to hire a surveyor to sort out the property lines.

That’s not a problem, agency board member Arlis Queen advised him: “Just ask the tax assessor. They always know where the property lines are, come tax time.”

It may not be that easy, though, cautioned board member Tom Rhodarmer, considering how many old property lines around here — including his own — date from the turn of the century and were defined by such changeable features as an old stump.

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