Observers see positive change at air-pollution agency

Our skies may be getting hazier, but the workings of the long-criticized agency charged with monitoring them are becoming noticeably clearer and more open. Veteran observers of the WNC Air Pollution Control Agency praised the changed climate at the APCA’s Nov. 8 board meeting.

“It doesn’t feel like a cover-up anymore; it feels like they’re honestly trying to do a good job,” noted environmental activist Susan Hutchinson. And, during the public-comment period of the meeting, journalist (and frequent agency critic) Don Yelton complimented the board on the “bright spots” he sees in its new attitude toward policymaking. As if to symbolize the agency’s new emphasis on public interaction, a display booth from the agency’s well-attended, first annual Air Fair last month — documenting the urgency of the air-pollution problems in the Blue Ridge Mountains — now dominates one wall of its boardroom.

But it still remains to be seen whether the board and staff’s expanding efforts to educate the public about the contributions of individual consumers, drivers and out-of-state power plants to the area’s pollution problems will be accompanied by a tougher attitude toward large local polluters, such as CP&L’s coal-burning Skyland power plant. It also appears uncertain whether the agency will be able to proceed with its recently stated intention to step up monitoring of car-and-truck emissions, in the face of potential resistance from state authorities.

Board praises new director

Earlier this year, a state audit sharply criticized the agency for muddled recordkeeping. But at this board meeting — the first for new Director Bob Camby — he won praise from board members for his clear and detailed reporting on the agency’s activities. Board member Alan McKenzie — who has focused, in recent meetings, on the need to upgrade the agency’s internal procedures — complimented Camby on his quarterly report, calling it “extremely useful and very well put together, very detailed … a real useful tool.” Looking over a six-page staff report on a permit application from Blue Ridge Paper Products, board Chair Nelda Holder remarked, “This material is much more interesting, these days. Thank you all.”

Camby announced two important, preliminary steps he is overseeing to reform the agency’s budget: changing from manual entry to a computer-spreadsheet format that would be more readily available to board and public scrutiny, and listing in each line item “what was purchased, the day it was purchased, and the amount.” Currently, the budget lists only the dates and amounts of expenditures, with no indication of what the money was spent on. McKenzie also called attention to Camby’s willingness to make himself available to public groups such as Taxpayers for Accountable Government (a prominent agency critic in the recent past), where he was scheduled to speak later in the week.

Did they or didn’t they? — CP&L’s potential violation

But Camby — a former manager at Carolina Power & Light’s coal-fired power plant in Skyland — appeared discomfited by the board’s questioning of staff inspector Greg Davis about a potential violation at the CP&L plant. “[The agency] should have withheld that information until we knew [for certain] if it was a violation,” Camby said in a later interview. Davis, too, seemed eager to defend the utility to the board. The board was considering the company’s request for a permit renewal for the facility, which has been a source of controversy over its burning of high-sulfur coal.

During a surprise inspection the week before, Davis caught the plant apparently exceeding its allowance for sulfur-dioxide emissions from one of the two coal-burning boilers that create steam to drive its electricity-generating turbines. While in the control room, Davis noticed that the gauge measuring the No. 2 boiler’s sulfur-dioxide emissions showed 2.5 pounds per million BTUs — 10 percent more than the maximum currently allowed (2.3 pounds per million BTUs). By that time, the excess emissions had been continuing for three hours, according to the utility’s records (the plant monitors its own emissions, eventually forwarding the data to the APCA). The cause: a silo full of high-sulfur-content coal. “They were starting to blend [in low-sulfur coal] at that point, to bring [the emissions rate] back down, but they have a certain amount of stock in the silos — once it’s there, they’ve got to burn it to get rid of it. These are huge silos,” explained Davis. Regulations require utilities to call the regulatory agency by the fourth hour of any such emissions problem. “Did they call in on the fourth hour?” asked board member Arlis Queen. “I did not receive a call,” Davis replied, “but I think they may have considered … since I was there at the time that, at that point, I knew about it.”

So was it or wasn’t it a violation? “Let’s not call it a violation — it’s a point,” demurred Davis. The uncertainty, according to Camby, lies in whether the sulfur-dioxide emissions should be averaged over a three-hour period or a 24-hour period. In the first case, it was a violation; but in the latter case, the boiler’s emissions averaged only 2.2 pounds per million BTUs — slightly under the allowable ceiling. Davis promised the board that he would find out, as soon as possible, what the state and EPA averaging period is; the local agency would need to use the same period. Camby cautions that the agency would also have to determine that the gauge was not malfunctioning before it could begin the process of issuing a notice of violation (although the burden of proof is on the company, to show that a violation did not occur). “This [excess emission] is not going on right now?” Queen asked. “No,” Davis replied. “At least, I hope not.”

Holder asked Davis about disconnected spark wires he had found in the utility’s smokestacks. Davis dismissed these as just “an indication of poor maintenance at a facility — but those particular stacks are so very clean: They have an annual average opacity limit of 2 percent on one and 5 percent on the other. They are currently running at 1 and 4 [percent]. That’s a perfect indication that those units run super-clean.”

“You’re still recommending approval of this permit?” Queen asked Davis.

“Yes. … The facility has been a very good source of ours — very, very trustworthy with their information. And it may very well come out that the averaging time will not even be a violation. … If it’s a violation, I would hate to hold up [this permit] based on that, and I trust that the agency will deal with that, if it is.” The board voted unanimously to approve the permit renewal.

Just before the CP&L renewal hearing, Queen had instructed Camby to list, on future renewal requests, all violations at the permitted facility within the preceding permit period.

Matching state regulations

Board member Don Randolph reported that, thanks to the efforts of the Bylaws Committee, the APCA now has bylaws — for the first time in its history.

The agency has hired a secretary to comb through APCA regulations and find where they differ from the state’s, with the goal of making the regulations more uniform. She is also reorganizing the agency’s files from their currently chaotic state into chronological order. The Canton-based Blue Ridge Paper Products (formerly Champion Paper), which is due for a Title V renewal hearing early next year, has asked the APCA to coordinate its requirements with the state’s, so the company will not be placed at a competitive disadvantage, compared to other, state-monitored N.C. paper mills. The local agency will also place monitors for airborne lead and arsenic emissions alongside the Environmental Protection Agency’s monitors at the notorious Barber Orchard site, to compare its readings with the EPA’s.

State may resist mobile-emissions testing

One area in which the state and the regional agency may not see eye to eye is mobile-emissions testing — directly monitoring and attempting to mitigate air pollution from car and truck exhaust. Board attorney Jim Siemens warned that recent conversations he had had with state officials have led him to believe that, “We’re going to run into resistance there.” The General Assembly’s decision to hold off on mobile-emissions monitoring until July 2004 has taken discretion away from the state Environmental Management Commission and local agencies such as the APCA. That, at least, “is the argument I anticipate [the state] making, based on the sense I’ve gotten from certain [Department of Environment and Natural Resources] officials,” he said later. If so, “[the public] may need to do a little lobbying” of its legislature to amend that law.

Local air-pollution agencies must keep their regulations compatible with state programs, Siemens says. If a local program wants to enact a rule that’s either more or less stringent than the state’s, the agency must submit the rule to the appropriate state commission for approval.

The APCA’s new open-burning regulations are compatible with state regulations, which is why the agency did not need to submit them to the state Department of Air Quality or the EMC. The agency will soon begin soliciting public comment on the proposed regulations, during for a 30-day period, Siemens announced at the meeting.

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 vacuuum-cleaner bags — that trap particulates in dirty air before it is sent out the smokestack.]

Among the signs of change at the APCA is the agency’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which now includes more than a dozen members — environmental activists as well as industry representatives. Members of the public also sit prominently on the recently formed Public Information and Strategic Planning commitees, and they joined APCA staff members in giving presentations at the agency’s well-attended Air Fair last month. The agency’s Web site (www.wncair.org) is rapidly expanding, with information on everything from meeting notices to ozone days and how to get an open-burn permit; the site will soon be used to help publicize notices of 30-day public-comment periods on important pollution-permit applications that, traditionally, have been buried in small print in the back pages of the daily newspaper. Appeals hearings and just about all board-and-committee meetings (except those concerning personnel matters) are now open to the public.

Board Chair Nelda Holder, a recent Asheville appointee, said she believes the crucial task facing the agency now is “how to involve everybody” in dealing with a growing air-pollution crisis that both affects and is affected by all of us. “The more pieces of the community we can involve, the more we can do.” Holder said she looks for “people with interests that include the community” to serve on committees. Some of these folks volunteer, and some she seeks out — but, “They are always recommended to me as someone who can contribute” to the agency’s fundamental mission.”

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