Good news and bad news

New controls on smokestack and tailpipe emissions appear to have reduced the area’s high ozone levels, making threatened federal intervention unlikely. But concerns about local ozone pollution’s potential health effects remain.

Computer modeling predicts that mountain-area ozone levels will stay in “attainment” with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for the foreseeable future even if local governments take no action whatsoever, state Division of Air Quality representative Laura Boothe said at a Nov. 1 public meeting held at UNCA. New state and federal controls on such emissions, she reported, appear to be on track to do the job.

The meeting was called to solicit public comment on North Carolina’s early-action-compact plans for reducing ground-level ozone pollution. (The EPA offers areas faced with nonattainment status a chance to stave off federal intervention by forming such a compact and developing their own plan.) But few people showed up — and even fewer spoke.

One person who did weigh in, however, was Senior Regional Planner Tom Elmore of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, who warned that avoiding EPA nonattainment status doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern.

“Success in terms of the model … means we could still see frequent ‘code yellow’ days,” Elmore pointed out during the public-comment period, and Boothe agreed. Code yellow ozone days are unhealthy for unusually sensitive people and can lead to more dangerous “code orange” days, unless action is taken to reduce ozone levels.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center is working to ensure that the early-action-compact plans filed by three areas of North Carolina that are already in nonattainment status — the Triad, the Hickory area, and Cumberland County — are not just a dodge to avoid restrictions on industry and development.

Breathing easier

Apparently, North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act (passed in 2002) and the earlier NOx SIP Call (the state’s implementation plan for complying with the EPA’s national clean-up) are successfully reducing ozone pollution from coal-fired power plants, including Progress Energy’s Asheville facility — the mountains’ principal point source for ozone-generating NOx (nitrogen oxide). Thanks to the Clean Smokestacks legislation, by 2009 the plant’s NOx emissions will be reduced by 93 percent compared to 1996 levels, according to information from the company.

Ozone from the other major NOx source — cars, trucks and off-road equipment — will decline thanks to tighter federal emissions standards on new gas and diesel engines, cleaner fuel standards, and the state’s recently expanded inspections program. Of course, the pollution models also assume that ozone from older, smog-spewing cars and trucks not covered by these standards and programs will decline as the aging vehicles break down and are towed off to their final reward.

But it was the rainier-than-normal summer of 2003 that first curbed ozone levels in Western North Carolina’s urban counties enough to avert EPA nonattainment status, which could have triggered severe restrictions on new industry and roads in the region. Absent that threat, Henderson and Transylvania counties have dropped out of the Mountain Area Compact, created last year by a mix of local officials, businesspeople and activists to reduce ozone pollution. Buncombe, Haywood and Madison counties, however, chose to continue with the now-voluntary measures — such as improving land-use planning, encouraging alternative fuels, increasing mass transit and running public-education campaigns. There are also recommended actions individual area residents can take to help keep ozone levels down to a healthy “code green”: using gas-powered lawn mowers and refueling cars and trucks in the late afternoon or evening, for example (ozone formation peaks during morning hours).

The Division of Air Quality’s modeling didn’t include the effects of such measures, Boothe noted at the public meeting, because they are too hard to quantify.

Environmentalists worry that plans lack teeth

East of the mountains, meanwhile, the Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center is concerned that the early-action-compact plans could amount to an empty promise unless there are clear repercussions for violating them.

“The big problem with early-action compacts is that [they] lack commitment,” warns Belinda Pierson, the center’s communications dirrector. “The language is very vague … and it lacks a strong commitment that ‘this is what will happen if you don’t do X.'”

An early-action compact is a contract between county government and the EPA, notes Pierson. Communities want to avoid the stigma and restrictions that accompany the EPA’s nonattainment label, which could hamper their efforts to recruit industry. So they promise to clean up their air ahead of schedule. But it’s unclear whether there are any consequences for breaking the contract.

Environmentalists, says Pierson, “like the [early-action] idea in theory, because … it means the communities clean up their air sooner than required. But they don’t like it in actuality, because if [communities] don’t meet the provisions, there’s no really clear action that will be taken.”

At the public meeting, Boothe echoed a concern frequently expressed by local officials: that lawsuits filed by environmentalists against the early-action-compact program could scare off the very industries whose cooperation is essential to its success. But Pierson sought to allay that fear, at least in terms of what’s happening in North Carolina.

The SELC, she said, “is not involved in any sort of litigation around the early-action compact. What we have done is work with state officials in North Carolina as well as local officials [and] EPA officials to ensure that those EACs are specific, that they’re quantifiable, that they have measurable goals — and that, at the end of the day, they’ll result in tangible air-quality improvements.”

Boothe, meanwhile, said the state is attempting to address the environmental group’s concerns by committing itself to conducting an annual review of air emissions caused by increases in car travel and by industry in the areas covered by early-action compacts. The state, she noted, will “investigate control measures” if those emissions exceed the predictions by more than 10 percent.

Because the Mountain Area Compact region is in attainment, local ozone-reduction measures are now voluntary — meaning concerns about enforcement don’t apply to us. But since air currents do sometimes carry our eastern neighbors’ pollution into our valleys, their failure to follow through on their early-action plans could well affect air quality here.

The Mountain Area Early Action Compact is available online at www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/ozone/eac/m040331_eac_nc_mountain.pdf.

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