Clearing the air

Members of the Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency board had a busy night at their Nov. 30 meeting. They upheld a $7,500 fine levied against Kenan Oil, promised to consider tougher fines for polluters, and directed staff to try to work out a compromise with the U.S. Forest Service on open fires.

“They’re concerned about [forest] fires, and we’re concerned about air pollution,” observed board member Tom Rhodarmer during APCA’s Nov. 30 meeting.

The differing missions sometimes put the two agencies at odds, explained board Chairman Doug Clark. The Forest Service prefers calm winds and cloudy, damp conditions for burning leaves and yard waste, to help prevent fires from spreading, he said. But those conditions — particularly the infamous inversion effect prevalent in the mountains, when high-elevation cold air traps warmer air near the surface — can spell trouble for air quality, Clark continued.

“That’s when the smoke [from open burns] will choke everyone around,” said APCA supervisor David Brigman.

“We want a little wind to dispel all the smoke,” added Clark.

For area residents, however, that can mean mixed messages: On days when they can easily get a burn permit from the Forest Service, they’re likely to get slapped with a fine by the APCA, said Rhodarmer.

“It’s all about education,” Clark remarked.

“It’s [about] changing habits,” interjected Rhodarmer: Folks are used to burning leaves in the fall, it’s quick and cheap to get a burn permit from the Forest Service, and no one realizes that they might be violating air-quality regulations.

Clark asked APCA staff to work on improving communications with the Forest Service — and perhaps hammering out a compromise on the enforcement issue.

As for educational efforts, the APCA has tapped board members Nelda Holder and Don Randolph to tackle that job, coordinating their efforts with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, which runs a clean-air campaign across its 17-county area. Because Land-of-Sky doesn’t operate in Haywood County, the APCA will concentrate its educational efforts there, reported Holder.

And, suggesting that education might better start closer to home, Holder asked members to consider renaming the organization something “shorter and easier to remember.” She mentioned that WNCAPCA isn’t even listed in the phone book under its cumbersome name (it’s included under Buncombe County Government Administrative Offices).

“Nobody’s ever heard of us,” joked longtime member Roy “Doc” Roberts, alluding to the recent deluge of media attention concerning the agency’s record of low fines for industrial violators, failure to appoint an Asheville resident as chair, and scrutiny by state agencies.

Jokes aside, however, Randolph reported that he’s working on building a more comprehensive contact list of media and other organizations, to be used when sending out APCA press releases, meeting notices and other information.

And Clark mentioned that 5,000 new APCA information brochures are ready to be distributed.

But the agency still has a public-perception problem, maintained Buncombe County resident Jerry Rice. At their public meetings, he noted, board members sit around a long table, half of them with their backs to the audience. Rice recommended that the APCA rearrange things, adding tables to make a V-shape, “so everyone can see each other.”

Rice also asked if the APCA could change its policy to allow public comment on regular-agenda items during the meetings, instead of scheduling it for the end, “after the vote.”

“We’re pretty informal here,” responded Clark. “We don’t mind people butting in [on agenda issues].”

“I don’t want to butt in; I want a regular procedure,” countered Rice.

League of Women Voters member Hazel Fobes added that she would like to see more discussion among members, staff and the public on regular-agenda items. Several air-pollution-violation appeals heard by APCA members that evening seemed “quickly made,” Fobes pointed out, as if much of the work on those issues had been done beforehand. And when Clark recommended eight people to serve on an Advisory Committee to help the board update its plans and mission, “The chair rattled off names rather quickly,” noted Fobes. “Slow down,” she urged.

“That’s my fault,” replied Clark, apologizing for seeming hasty in asking for board members’ support in setting up the advisory committee. Clark said he had personally contacted almost everyone recommended, and — after being urged by both Holder and local activist Susan Hutchinson to note each person’s background — reported that the group includes a college chemistry professor (Dean Kahl), two chemists (CP&L researcher Wendall Burton and Earl West), Champion International employee Derric Brown, CP&L representative Garry Whisnant, meteorologist Grant Goodge, engineer Vance Litz and Clean Water Fund of North Carolina representative Ginny Lindsey. The eight-member committee can be enlarged, Clark stressed.

Holder jumped on that thought, suggesting that she recruit a member of the medical community to serve on the board.

And APCA board member Arlis Queen asked, “Do you reckon there’d be too many environmentalists [on the committee] if we added [UNCA professor] Rick Maas?”

Clark reiterated that the committee could be enlarged, at board members’ discretion.

In other business, Lindsey cautiously praised the APCA’s updated civil-penalty policy, calling it a “reasonable start.” However, she suggested that board members be empowered to increase fines in special situations, such as when the violator flagrantly avoids correcting the problem, or conceals it, or is slow to report it. Lindsey also noted that the agency’s base fines remain low — just 7 percent of the maximum allowed by state law, in several cases.

At that point in her presentation, Roberts made an unsupported motion that the board not do anything with her recommendations, for the time being.

“Let’s let her have her piece,” urged Clark. He allowed Lindsey to complete her comments and pass out a written report to board members. Clark said he agrees with Lindsey “up to a point,” cautioning that fines aren’t the whole picture — the APCA’s mission is also to inform violators about air-pollution-control methods and regulations.

With that, the issue seemed to be dismissed, so Western North Carolina Alliance Executive Director Brownie Newman asked Clark when the board might act on Lindsey’s recommendations.

APCA attorney Billy Clark said they could be voted on as early as the board’s next meeting, in mid-December.

But Randolph remarked that the board and APCA staff normally take 30 days to review policy issues. And Rhodarmer pointed out that, with the winter holidays approaching, the board might not get to the recommendations until January. Clark commented that the board would be more likely to enact Lindsey’s recommendations if she could “sell” staff on their merits.

APCA staff noted that some of those recommendations have already been incorporated into the policy, such as procedures for reducing fines when violators prove cooperative and quickly remedy the error.

With that, the meeting adjourned.

Afterward, Clark remarked that part of the APCA’s job is to keep the governmental bodies which appoint its board members — Asheville City Council, as well as the Buncombe and Haywood County commissioners — apprised of the latest developments and issues in air-pollution control. He lamented that Asheville Council members hadn’t responded to his request, earlier this fall, for comments on the potential air-quality impacts of the additional traffic the extension of Interstate 26 is expected to bring. “Vehicles are a big source of pollution; sooner or later, we’ve got to talk about that,” Clark declared.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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