Beyond permits

Donate to flood victims in eastern North Carolina? Establish a program to reduce car and truck emissions here at home? These and other ideas for spending excess funds evoked heated discussion at the Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control Agency’s Oct. 11 board meeting.

No sooner had Doug Clark announced the agency’s $831,000 fund balance, (of which about $500,000 can be spent, at the agency’s discretion) than he made an impassioned motion that the agency donate $244,902 of it — “a dollar for every man, woman and child in Buncombe and Haywood counties” — to the state’s Hurricane Floyd Relief Fund.

Clark’s motion violated a decision the board had made earlier in the meeting to postpone any specific grant-making discussions until after it could establish its priorities and procedures for spending the agency’s fund balance.

After the other board members recovered their breath, Alan McKenzie objected, arguing that “to act on disbursement of [these] funds without … developing [advisory] procedures and establishing [overall] priorities would be a disservice to the people that provided those funds to us.”

“‘The people that provided those funds,'” Clark repeated sarcastically. “Are you suggesting that we reduce our fines [and] permitting fees?” (Much of the fund balance derives from fines and fees collected from large industrial polluters.)

“I’m not suggesting anything at all,” McKenzie shot back, “other than that we provide opportunities to discuss all possibilities. Don’t put words in my mouth!”

Eventually, McKenzie — who has several times expressed frustration with the agency’s idiosyncratic administrative procedures — obtained the board’s unanimous consent for his proposal that the APCA do what other state agencies do: Have the chair appoint a strategic-planning group, composed of members of both the agency’s board and its citizens’ advisory panel, to help establish priorities for distribution of the fund balance. The group — which Clark insisted on joining — will consider the Floyd-relief proposal, along with others.

During the discussion, Richard Maas staked out a broad vision for the agency’s funding priorities. “We should spend that fund balance on things that are related to protecting and improving the air quality. That is our charge and responsibility. … It’s going to take an expansion of the traditional scope of this agency, going beyond just approving and enforcing industrial air-emission permits — having other activities that have to do with other sources of air pollution, [and educating] this community about air pollution.”

Later in the meeting, during a presentation by Planner Linda Giltz of the Land-of-Sky Regional Regional Council, Maas urged the board to support her request for assistance — using funds from the general budget, rather than the fund balance — to conduct a survey to determine what barriers stand in the way of alternative-transportation options, such as park-and-ride lots. (The board approved the $5,000 request, with Clark and Taxpayers for Accountable Government head Arlis Queen voting against it. Queen later remarked to a reporter, “No sooner do we get this agency stabilized than everyone starts coming to us asking for money.”)

“We have done a reasonably good job with this agency at addressing industrial point sources,” declared Maas, “but if we’re really going to make a real effort here [toward] the larger mission of protecting and improving our air quality and preventing its degradation, we’re going to have to deal with emissions from cars and trucks and mobile sources. Certainly, we all recognize that this is going to be part of this larger strategic goal we’re talking about — expanding the scope of this agency’s mission to really address the sources of our air-quality threats and degradation. Part of … what we’re going to have to do in this agency is figure out how to have less vehicles on the road, and have a way to have each of those vehicles putting out less pollutants. So, we are going to have to address the whole mass-transit issue here, and ways to make these transportation systems work,” not only in Buncombe County, but also in the surrounding counties, whose residents commute to jobs around Asheville.

Maas said after the meeting that the APCA also needs to focus on the emissions pouring into our area from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plants in eastern Tennessee (see “Nuggets from the baghouse”).

New director, citizen advisers chosen

And the winner is … Interim Director Bob Camby, who will now drop the term “interim” from his title; Camby has been temporarily heading the agency since Jim Cody’s departure. A close runner-up was agency engineer Chuck Sams, who the board said received “high praise” from its Personnel Committee. Also interviewed for the post were state Division of Air Quality Permit Coordinator Dean Carroll and DAQ Senior Enforcement Officer Kimberley Davis.

Maas nominated, and the board approved, two new members to the APCA’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee (which is open to anyone who wishes to serve, once cleared by the board): Alyx Perry, community organizer with the WNC Alliance, and Carolina McCready, project manager for Community Outreach and Technology at Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center.

Open burning revisited

Who do you call when that unfriendly neighbor of yours is burning truck tires and old paint buckets upwind of your backyard wedding reception? Ordinarily, it would be the APCA, at 255-5655. But if it’s a weekend, no one will be there, and you won’t even get a message machine, said board Chair Nelda Holder.

You could call 911, whose operators do have a way of reaching APCA inspectors and dispatching them to the site. The Buncombe County Emergency Management office (at 255-5638) can also call APCA inspectors. But most people don’t know these things. So, the board agreed to set up a 24-hour burn-complaint number — with a message machine, at the very least. The phone number will be posted on the APCA Web site, www.wncair.org. The Web site will also explain the agency’s new no-burning-on-red-ozone-days rule, which agency attorney Jim Siemens has determined can be implemented by the board (once the state OKs it).

If you’re a builder clearing a lot for a new house, the largest log you should be throwing on that brush-pile bonfire is 6 inches in diameter. Anything larger must be split to size before burning it, or you risk a fine.

That was the word from the board after hearing Director Camby’s review of a list of recent compliance inspections — a review requested by Queen, apparently to ensure that open-burning regulations are being fairly enforced. Camby said he’d discovered only a couple of minor irregularities: a case involving a burning leaf pile in West Asheville (the inspector had asked the Fire Department to douse the fire, but neglected to follow up with a visit to notify the homeowner of the violation); and a case involving a contractor who was told to remove a 12-inch diameter log from his brush-pile fire, but not several 8-inch logs.

And what about that illegal fire that Gov. Jim Hunt had spotted while traveling through Haywood County last month — the one inspectors checked out, only to be told by two neighbors that neither had started it, and that it was exactly on the boundary between their properties (see the Sept. 22 “Nuggets from the baghouse” for details)?

It turns out that one of the neighbors finally called the agency and confessed, Camby reported. After renters had moved out and left a mess, the property owner explained, she’d thrown out the old tires, mattresses, clothes and a sofa, and lit a match, igniting the smoky pyre that the governor happened to witness. She was issued a notice of violation and fined $400.

“Talk about poor timing!” said Clark.

Asbestos and olive oil

RiverLink Director Karen Cragnolin has promised to board up the openings in the old Cotton Mill building, which her organization owns, Camby reported. The building — one of the few survivors of the 1996 fire that gutted the historic River District — contains asbestos ceiling insulation that is about to fall down and could drift out through the empty windows and doors. There is no evidence of asbestos in the debris piled outside the building, however. RiverLink has not made a determination yet on whether to preserve or tear down the century-old brick building.

Greg Davis reported to the board on Borg-Warner’s application for a renewal of its Title V permit. As part of the company’s manufacturing process, certain rubber parts, called “dampers,” are immersed in “dip tanks” containing toluene, a highly volatile solvent whose carcinogenic fumes make it what the APCA calls a “criterion pollutant.”

When combined with other volatile organic compounds emitted by paint used at the plant, those toluene fumes push the company’s emissions just over the 100-ton-per-year threshold, putting it in the Title V classification, the most burdensome and expensive category of air-pollution permits. (Most of the agency’s fund balance, discussed earlier, is derived from Title V permit fees.)

But olive oil, the company has discovered, can cause the necessary chemical alteration in the rubber dampers just as effectively as toluene; if substituted in the dip tanks, would lower the company’s emissions below the Title V limit. Unfortunately, the companies who buy Borg-Warner’s parts, including Caterpillar and John Deere, won’t accept the low-cholesterol parts until further tests can be completed.

Air Fair this Saturday; board to meet next in Haywood County

The agency’s first annual Air Fair will be held Saturday, Oct. 23, from 10 a.m. till 3 p.m., at the agency’s headquarters at 49 Mt. Carmel Road (a block east of Leicester Highway, 3.2 miles north of Patton Avenue.). The fair will include presentations on: solar and alternative-energy systems for the home; WNC’s worsening air-pollution problem; and what the APCA does. Free pizza and cider will be served. Kids will be able to enjoy the “Air Avenger Puppet Show,” videos, and computer-modeling and ozone-monitoring demonstrations.

The board’s next meeting will be held Monday, Nov. 8 at the High-Tech Center in Haywood County.

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.]

Who decides whether to pronounce each day’s ozone pollution level green (“good”), yellow (“moderate”), orange (“unhealthy for sensitive groups”), or red (“generally unhealthy”)?

Forecasters in Raleigh issue a prediction the day before, based on data from local monitors, plus weather and sunshine predictions. They’re wrong about 10 percent of the time.

In the annual ozone season that just ended, local air-agency officials report, we experienced 30 orange days and only one red day.

But if the sky seems clearer on a red or orange day than on a green, don’t think it’s because the capital’s weathermen have been inhaling too many fumes. Not only is ground-level ozone invisible, but clear days with a high ozone level probably mean that the ominous “Atlanta plume” is surging through our hills and hollers, bearing the accumulated exhaust of the millions of cars, trucks and buses that jam the Southeast’s most populous city (not to mention its industry emissions) — a portent of Asheville’s future, as our own region inundates itself with freeways and single-occupant vehicles.

But “mobile-source emissions” are not the only culprit in the browning of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Each year, according to APCA engineer Chuck Sams, 11,682 tons of nitrous oxide (aptly abbreviated “NOx”) and 21,324 tons of sulfur dioxide (“SO2″) pour into our skies from the smokestacks of Carolina Power & Light’s coal-fired electricity-generating plant at Lake Julian, in Skyland.

Still, the local plant’s toxic tonnage is dwarfed by what western winds deliver here from the four coal-fired power plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority in eastern Tennessee. Together, the Allen, Bull Run, John Sevier, and Kingston plants produce a 85,400 tons per year of NOx, and 306,207 tons per year of SO2.

Fortunately, these figures are predicted to drop by 75 percent when the TVA installs NOx-neutralizing catalytic and burner technology, and begins burning low-sulfur coal from Wyoming’s Powder River, in order to comply with Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Better keep holding your breath, though — these new EPA emissions standards are the same ones that Gov. Jim Hunt is suing the EPA to overturn, in order to avoid causing a hardship for North Carolina industries and utilities.

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