Peering through the smoke

Doug Clark is a happy man. Since he was elected chairman of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency — during a period of intense public scrutiny and internal discord — the seemingly endless controversy surrounding the agency is finally showing signs of receding. After the APCA agreed, in early September, to be audited both procedurally and financially by the state’s Environmental Management Commission, the tensions between the agency’s board and its critics — and among the board members themselves — appear to have slacked off, at least temporarily.

That’s not to say, though, that the ordeal hasn’t been tough, or that it’s even close to being over. For months — some would say years — the APCA has weathered numerous complaints that it simply wasn’t doing its job. The accusations ranged from the personal (the fact that board member Roy “Doc” Roberts, a man in his 90s who sometimes seems to doze off during proceedings, was nonetheless reappointed to the board) to the procedural (the board has been accused of not enforcing pollution-control regulations as stringently as it should, particularly in the industrial sector).

Tellingly, both the agency’s board members and director seem to be as tired of the trouble as the public. “This mess has been going on for three years now,” complains APCA Director Jim Cody, “and it’s time to resolve it.”

While the board has faced a battery of critics — including both public officials and private citizens — one of the most strident voices of dissent has come from within the agency. Board member Arlis Queen, the former head of the citizen watchdog group Taxpayers for Accountable Government, has been persistently critical of the board’s policies and procedures since he was appointed by the city of Asheville in 1996. Among Queen’s criticisms are assertions that the agency is wasteful and overbudgeted, does not follow its own rules of procedure, and — most pointedly — that it has defaulted on its obligations by letting big industry police itself.

The agency did recently acknowledge that it had been a mistake to let one company, CP&L, investigate itself in connection with citizen complaints about soot (after conducting tests, the company concluded that the soot was not coming from its smokestacks). But Clark disputes the charge that the agency is in the pocket of big industry.

“That’s a joke,” he says flatly. “I’d like to know what industry we’re in the pocket of. It’s obvious to anyone who looks [at the board members’ backgrounds] that the board is not top-heavy toward industry.”

While industry interests are definitely represented, the current board roster does include members with varied backgrounds:

• former APCA director Ron Boone

• retired Champion International manager Don Randolph

• Mark IV manager/Dayco Products owner Tom Rhodarmer

• free-lance writer/AB Tech Instructor Nelda Holder

• retired physician Roy “Doc” Roberts

• retired insurance executive Arlis Queen

• real-estate and business consultant Doug Clark

But both Holder and Queen are relatively recent appointments to the board, many of whose members have had ties to local industry (including a former manager at BASF, a factory in Enka that makes flame-retardant fiber).

And Queen believes the agency’s practice of allowing self-monitoring by industries stains the APCA’s reputation. “As long as big industry is monitoring themselves, we’ll continue to have that criticism,” he observes, adding, “We need to be better in monitoring industry.”

A recent Asheville Citizen-Times investigation corroborated Queen’s claims. A review conducted by the paper showed that the agency is “far less likely than the state Division of Air Quality to issue citations and fines to emitters of industrial air pollution.

That assessment supports what many critics have been saying all along. Buncombe County resident Susan Hutchinson, who has tracked the APCA’s activities for several years, said in a recent interview that, ” … the board members are definitely sympathetic to industry. At their meetings, they’ve made comments that they see themselves as much for the purpose of economic development as pollution control.”

Another county resident — Hazel Fobes, the chairperson of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water — was sufficiently concerned to send numerous letters, as well as articles from both the Mountain Xpress and the Citizen-Times criticizing the APCA, to David Moreau, the director of the state Environmental Management Commission.

“We were getting more and more frustrated about what [the air-pollution board’s] intentions were,” said Fobes, “so I called and had a series of conversations with Moreau about the board.”

That eventually led to a Sept. 9 meeting in Charlotte, attended by Moreau.

During the meeting, Fobes directed several charges at the agency, while Clark defended the APCA. But when the smoke had cleared, Moreau suggested that the EMC begin an in-depth investigation of the air-pollution agency. Members of the Division of Air Quality were asked to prepare an outline on how to conduct a study, says DAQ Public Information Director Tom Mather, and also to produce a time line for getting the two-year study done.

The EMC also plans to investigate North Carolina’s two other local air-pollution programs — in Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties — but for only one year.

In anticipation of the EMC’s call for an investigation, the APCA had hurriedly assembled its own report, which the agency presented at the meeting, laying out a comprehensive picture of where the agency has been and where it’s going. Although the status report is somewhat vague about the APCA’s history of regulating big industry, the document does seem to support many of the agency’s claims.

“I think the report silenced a lot of critics,” Clark says confidently. “I didn’t realize how good we looked until I saw it on paper.”

While acknowledging minor shortcomings, he believes the problems the agency has experienced in recent months have more to do with public perception than with the APCA’s actual performance. “I think the agency had been a little lax in making the general public aware of what we’re doing,” concedes Clark, adding, “Everyone comes under fire from time to time; any board is going to receive criticism. It’s just part of the process.”

Critics say the APCA has struggled to adjust to public scrutiny. “They were too focused on themselves,” Queen observes. “They resented being asked questions from anyone about their procedures. The fact is, they’ve never been accountable to anyone before.”

Fobes agrees. “The agency needs to see that [the public] is not the enemy,” she said. “We just want them to get their rules and regulations on board and see that they’re all working together for the purposes of that agency. At times, some of them are almost rude in their ability to ignore the public — including even some high officials They need to give their rules and regulations to the public — we need more detailed, periodic reports on the work being done, with analyses on the progress.”

The constant commotion surrounding the APCA has also taken a serious toll on its employees. “This has been particularly hard for them,” said former Director Boone. “Several of them have come to me and said they can’t take it anymore. When someone is trying to do away with your job, that’s about as adverse as a working condition can get.”

Current Director Cody reports similar concerns, saying, “One of the things I’ve been trying to do lately is simply keep employee morale up.”

And even though things seem to be calming down around the agency, some lingering animosity remains. “I think the feeling between Arlis and the agency is still there,” Boone allows. “When he comes out and says to the newspapers that he doesn’t feel that Cody is doing an adequate job, then that’s a problem.”

For his part, Queen puts it this way: “The problem is on the road to being solved. But there are still some people on that board who need to come around.”

Despite his long-standing criticism — including, most recently, a tense and irritable exchange with the Buncombe County Commissioners at their Sept. 15 meeting — Queen doesn’t feel that he’s being unreasonable. “I don’t think I’m too aggressive. You have to understand that there was hostility toward me before I got on the board. They didn’t like [Taxpayers for Accountable Government] asking the questions we did. But when I went on that board, it was [as a citizen] completely separated from TAG.”

And at least one board member, Ron Boone — due, perhaps, to his long association with the APCA — believes the present period of relative calm at the agency won’t last. “It may have quieted down for a while, but I think things will come back up. I think we have a good board right now, but these things will come up continuously.”

He may be right: While the board has made concessions to the public and state-level scrutiny (notably, its recent agreement to place an air-monitoring device at the CP&L site, one of the principal emitters of air pollutants in the county), critics plan to continue keeping an eye on the agency.

“[The board] is particularly weak on enforcement,” said Rick Maas, director of the environmental studies program at UNCA, adding that ” … their technical knowledge of air-pollution issues is relatively superficial.”

But Maas remains cautiously optimistic, noting that the agency has just hired a new senior staff person, a “technically competent environmental scientist” named Chuck Sams. Sams, Maas maintains, is dedicated to environmental protection.

“One would hope and presume,” said Maas, “that [the APCA has] taken steps to improve.”

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