Choose clean air—or Uncle Sam will do it for us

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is offering five counties in Western North Carolina a chance to take a fast track to cleaner air. The catch is, it’s a one-time-only deal, and they have just three weeks to think it over. If city and county elected officials in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Transylvania and Haywood counties can all agree by Dec. 31 to sign onto an “early action compact” — a voluntary commitment to creating a serious regional plan to reduce air pollution — WNC can avoid the dreaded stigma of “nonattainment,” the EPA’s designation for an area whose air has become so unhealthy that the federal government has to step in and tell its residents how to clean up their mess. But if even one of these counties refuses to go along, the fix-it-yourself scenario will cease to be an option for all of them.

At a hastily organized briefing on Dec. 3, regional air-quality officials did their best to explain an offer — which they themselves had learned about only weeks before — to a roomful of elected officials, environmentalists and business owners. WNC is a candidate for nonattainment status because, for the last three years, ozone pollution in Asheville and on local ridge tops has been measured at levels exceeding the EPA’s 85 parts per billion limit. (Ground-level ozone, a byproduct of coal smoke from power plants and exhaust fumes from cars and trucks, is causing an alarming increase in lung ailments among area residents; as one official put it, it’s “like a sunburn on your lungs.”)

If the counties fail to approve the compact, the nonattainment designation will take effect in April 2004, placing Asheville on a list of unhealthy cities that also includes Charlotte and Atlanta.

The repercussions could be harsh. No new sources of industrial ozone pollution (or expansions of existing facilities) would be permitted that would have a negative impact on local air quality. Polluting facilities would be required to install the most stringent available emissions controls (regardless of cost), and would have to trade or buy emissions credits from existing sources that have either reduced their pollution or closed down entirely. And all proposed road-building projects would have to be shown (through computer modeling) not to worsen air quality (a requirement called “transportation conformity”). If that could not be done, the project would lose federal highway funding and would be delayed or canceled.

An early action compact would enable the region to avoid nonattainment status by voluntarily agreeing to meet the same pollution-reduction goals that nonattainment would impose, but on a much quicker timetable.

“The purpose of an early action compact is to achieve clean air earlier,” said Kay Prince, administrator for EPA Region IV. These compacts are “voluntary, flexible, tailored to local needs, and driven by local decisions,” reports Melanie Caudle Pitrolo of the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency.

But it’s a brand-new idea — the very first such protocol was signed only last June in Texas — and exactly how it would work seemed, to many attending the briefing, “as clear as mud,” as Avram Friedman of the Canary Coalition complained to this reporter. Even local regulators were still finding out key details of the program from Prince at the briefing.

One aspect of the proposed compact that came through clear as an alarm bell, however, is that it would require our entire community — elected officials, air-quality regulators, business owners, environmentalists and members of the general public — to sit down together and forge a plan that will actually reduce air pollution in our region. And we’ll need to do it right away.

Local governments within the nonattainment area have until Dec. 31 to either sign the compact or pass a resolution supporting it. The compact, however, is merely a statement of commitment. The actual emissions-reduction plan would then have to be hammered out by April 15, 2003, with full “stakeholder buy-in” — i.e., broad-based community participation. And it would have to include modeling — computer-aided projections of how much each stipulated measure would reduce pollution.

After submitting the plan to the state and the EPA for comment, the region would be required to begin implementing the measures in the plan before Dec. 31, 2004 — preferably by the start of the 2004 ozone season (around May 1). The region would then have three years — until Dec. 31, 2007 — to reduce its ozone levels to the specified targets, and to document those efforts by submitting regular progress reports to the EPA. If we succeeded by that final deadline, the EPA would then declare the region to be in attainment.

The proposed compact does offer the region several carrots: cleaner air, local self-control, and avoiding a stigma that could drive away tourists and manufacturers alike, local officials say. But there are also sticks to ensure that we actually follow through on our promises.

“No one is telling us what measures to take — but we must show good faith,” Pitrolo emphasized. Federal officials “don’t want lip service — we must show actual reductions.” And Prince noted that, since the compact would be vulnerable to Clean Air Act lawsuits, environmentalists would need to be fully included in the process. Specifically, the progress reports would have to show that a series of EPA-set targets had been met — if any one of them were missed, the region would immediately revert to nonattainment status.

Transportation is the tricky part

Pitrolo and Paul Muller, regional director of the state Division of Air Quality, outlined some of the regional pollution-reduction measures we will need to take. (The DAQ oversees all the counties in question except Buncombe, which has its own air-quality agency.) The principal target is nitrogen oxides, the main human-made ingredient in the formation of ozone. There are only two major “point sources” of NOx in the region — Carolina Power & Light’s coal-fired power plant in Skyland and the Blue Ridge Paper mill in Canton — both of which are already making large NOx reductions, according to Muller. Power-using industries will probably be encouraged — and government agencies may be required — to upgrade their electrical equipment to energy-saving EnergyStar or GreenLight technology.

That leaves so-called “mobile sources” of NOx — WNC’s ever-proliferating autos, trucks, lawnmowers, backhoes, etc. — as the major focus for ozone reductions.

The state is already beginning to institute a rigorous new inspection-and-maintenance program for cars and trucks — due to begin in Buncombe County in mid-2004 — that will rely on the computerized emissions monitors installed on cars and trucks manufactured from 1998 on. Public education will be important, too, especially as more alternative-fuel vehicles come on the market. Diesel fleets such as school and transit buses could be retrofitted with clean-diesel technology (as the Buncombe County Schools will do to 70 of their buses in January). Public transit could be expanded, and park-and-ride commuter programs could be established.

But the major concern on the minds of many who attended the briefing was highway expansion — and especially the highly controversial proposals to widen I-240 and a portion of I-26. One glaring difference between traditional nonattainment and the early action compact model is that the EAC doesn’t mandate transportation conformity.

“Is it in the best interest of our area as it grows to avoid conformity requirements?” asked Michael Shore of Environmental Defense.

The modeling on which transportation conformity depends will be an important component of the EAC plan, promised planning chief Brock Nicholson of the Division of Air Quality. But no one at the briefing could guarantee that the state Department of Transportation — none of whose invited representatives showed up, according to event organizer Jim Stokoe of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council — will pay any attention to its findings.

Stokoe read from a reply he’d received from David Hyder, the DOT’s air-quality expert. “‘If the plans, specifications and estimates’ — essentially, the bid documents — ‘for the connector project are available before April 15, 2004 [when transportation conformity for ozone would begin to be required], then the Asheville connector [and the six-laning of I-26 from Henderson to Buncombe County] can proceed without having to go through conformity. Otherwise the project must have a conformity determination before DOT can let the contract. Under the Early Action Compact scenario, transportation conformity likely will not apply.'”

“I want to make sure people understand,” clarified Nicholson, “just because transportation conformity’s in place doesn’t mean projects ultimately don’t get built.” It does mean they may be delayed until they are revised to be more “air-quality friendly.”

“Is there a way to bring DOT to the table in the same way as if nonattainment were [imposed]?” asked Betty Lawrence of the I-26 Connector Awareness Group.

For most of the counties involved, the Metropolitan Planning Organization would be the formal link between local plans and the DOT, answered Nicholson. MPO Coordinator Dan Baechtold added, “There may be things that we come up with locally in our plan that would require some change from DOT.”

Yet another uncertainty is exactly which counties would be included in the nonattainment designation. If any of the designated counties and major cities refuses to accept the compact, it becomes null for all of them, and nonattainment status will be imposed. The compact is, however, nonbinding — any government can sign it, then change its mind and drop back to nonattainment without affecting the rest.

Will Haywood County go along?

Haywood County is the wild card. Even though its Waynesville monitors show average ozone levels that are still below the 85 ppb standard, the county will probably still be included in the census-based “Metropolitan Statistical Area” that is the EPA’s basis for delineating nonattainment areas. And two years ago, Haywood abruptly pulled out of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, the predecessor of the AQA.

Haywood County Manager Jack Horton told this reporter: “Transportation is going to be a big factor on this air-quality issue. No air quality, no money for roads; no money for roads, no economic development and so forth, so it all ties together. I wouldn’t dare try to speak for my board of county commissioners, but I think when they look at the facts, that we will be working with Asheville, Buncombe and the MSA to do what we can as far as air quality.”

But for some local decision-makers, economic concerns may take a back seat to environmental ones. “The bottom line,” declared Asheville City Council member Holly Jones near the end of the briefing, “is that we want to clean up our air for the most vulnerable in our society to breathe. [Public health] is the bottom line.”

NOx — it’s not what you’d think

Nitrogen oxide, or NOx — the key human-made ingredient in ozone pollution, emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks alike — stands several commonly heard assumptions about air pollution on their head.

Myth: Most of our air pollution is blown in from somewhere else.

Fact: A years-long study by air-quality experts with the Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative found that to be true only at some of the higher elevations between here and Tennessee — specifically, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Linville Gorge and Shining Rock Wilderness — where prevailing winds do blow ozone and sulfate particles in from the TVA’s coal-fired power plants. But nearly everywhere else, say the experts, we’re stewing in our own smog — especially in the valleys where most of us live and drive our NOx-spewing internal-combustion engines. Statewide, at least half of the NOx is generated by these mobile sources — and the proportion is almost certainly higher in WNC, since our two main point sources (CP&L and Blue Ridge Paper) already use some of the most advanced NOx-reduction technology in the state. Even on nearby ridge tops, notes Paul Muller of the state Division of Air Quality, ozone readings are highest on the days when they’re also high in the valleys where our population is concentrated. In the valleys, readings tend to peak in midafternoon; on the ridge tops, they peak around midnight, suggesting that the ozone may be rising up the mountainsides after the daytime inversion layer that generally traps it in the valleys has dissipated.

Myth: Adding more freeway lanes so cars can move faster will reduce the air pollution from all that congested traffic.

Fact: Cars actually generate much more NOx at high speeds than at low speeds. “After 50 mph, the emission rate for NOx greatly increases,” according to Heather Hildebrandt, transportation-conformity engineer with the state Division of Air Quality. “Therefore, in North Carolina [which is facing statewide nonattainment for ozone], we are more concerned with ensuring that vehicles are not high emitters for NOx at high speeds rather than at idle.” (For older cars, emissions of carbon monoxide — a major concern in the early days of the Clean Air Act — are much higher at idle than at high speeds, but newer cars have emission controls that reduce CO emissions to less than 50 grams per mile at all speeds. See http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/aqfactbk/factbk13.htm.)

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