The Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency is something of a strange bird.
While the agency bears the name of the WNC region, it operates only in Buncombe County.
And while it receives no funding from Buncombe County’s government, its six staff members are county employees.
One of only three local air quality agencies in North Carolina — the others are in Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties — WNCRAQA will hold a public hearing on its proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 on Tuesday, June 26, at 4 p.m. at the office of the Buncombe County Permits and Inspections Department at 30 Valley St. in Asheville. Comments should be submitted prior to the meeting at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First formed in Asheville in the 1940s as the Smoke Abatement Program, the organization originally focused on mitigating the coal smoke that settled in local valleys during stagnant weather conditions.
In 1965, the Smoke Abatement Program teamed up with Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Transylvania counties to become the Western North Carolina Air Pollution Control Agency.
But the partnership was short-lived.
After disagreements about financial support, Henderson and Transylvania counties left the APCA in 1970, deciding to adhere instead to only state and federal regulations.
In 2000, Haywood County pulled out of the deal as well. That year, Asheville City Council considered disbanding the agency but held off in the face of an outpouring of support from community members and industry. The APCA, which now covered only Buncombe County, was yet again rebranded as the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency.
“The name can be confusing because we only cover one county,” says Ashley Featherstone, WNCRAQA’S permitting program director. “It was left that way in case any other counties decided to opt in. So far, none have.”
Regulation has its benefits
As an independent agency, WNCRAQA can — and has — set regulations and enforcement that are more stringent than federal and state standards. Buncombe County has placed more restrictions on open burning, asbestos disposal and contractor demolition than the surrounding counties. In addition to yielding cleaner air, the rules also come with some financial perks.
“We get funding from the EPA, just like the states do, to operate these air pollution monitoring networks where we monitor for things like ground-level ozone and ground particles,” says Featherstone. “Any place you have a local program [like WNCRAQA], you have air pollution monitors. If you don’t have a local program, it is up to the state to decide which counties get them.”
Buncombe County’s air quality monitors allow the agency to accurately predict air quality in real time while also observing long-term trends. A station installed last year at the Bent Creek Community Park monitors ozone, while another unit at A-B Tech tracks toxic substances like benzene. Three monitoring units located at the Buncombe County Schools Board of Education facility at 175 Bingham Road in Asheville continuously measure airborne particulates.
While WNCRAQA doesn’t operate the monitor that tracks sulfur dioxide emissions from Duke Energy’s Lake Julian plant, it does review data from the monitor on a daily basis, says Kevin Lance, field services program manager. Installed by Duke Energy on Brown Mountain in South Asheville in January 2017, the monitor has returned readings that are well within federal limits, according to Lance.
Still, it’s too soon to say for sure that Duke Energy is in full compliance. “You have to have three years of data to make a determination,” says Featherstone.
The irony is that the three-year monitoring period will come to an end just as Duke is transitioning the Lake Julian plant to run on natural gas rather than coal, a switch that ought to lower smokestack emissions substantially, Lance says.
In its $1 million proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1, WNCRAQA cites funding sources that include federal grants, permit and inspection fees and the state gasoline tax.
Local air quality staff is keeping a watchful eye on developments at the Environmental Protection Agency, which provides nearly half of WNCRAQA’s annual funding.
“The president and the current administration have proposed a reduction to the air pollution grants that the states and local air agencies get. They have proposed at least a 30 percent reduction but so far, Congress has kept the funding level,” says Featherstone. “And it’s been level for about 14 years, which basically amounts to a reduction when you think of cost of living.” The agency’s staff, she says, has gone from 11 to six over the past decade.
The downward funding trend, says Betsy Brown, air quality supervisor, means fewer workers to conduct facility inspections, operate air pollution monitoring equipment and investigate open burning and dust complaints. Education and public outreach and managing grants are tasks that are also feeling the squeeze.
Some of the funding reductions can be traced to the success of clean air programs. “WNCRAQA, like the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality and the EPA, have seen a reduction in the workforce due to stagnant or diminishing funding of air quality programs and grants, as well as the reduction of permit fees due to the reduction of pollution emissions at point sources,” says Brown.
While WNCRAQA’s revenue from permitting and inspection fees is lower than in the past, it still makes up over a quarter of the agency’s funding.
Director David Brigman says his organization is responsible for permits and inspections for 229 facilities in Buncombe County. Those range from the county’s biggest emitter of regulated substances, Duke Energy’s Lake Julian power plant, to local gas stations and dry cleaners.
In addition, the agency reviews all construction demolition permit applications in the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, a total of 800-1,000 applications a year, as well as permitting and inspecting all asbestos abatement projects in the city and county every year. The asbestos work adds up to another 300-400 projects for which the agency is responsible.
While the agency collected an average of $11,600 in fines annually between 2012 and 2016, all of that money must go to Asheville City and Buncombe County schools under state law, according to Brown. Finable infractions range from illegal burning to noncompliance with permit regulations in industrial facilities.
I can see clearly now
A major win for local air quality came in 2006, when Duke Energy installed smokestack scrubbers at its Lake Julian plant in accordance with the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002.
“In 2006, [Duke Energy’s] emissions of SO2 [sulfur dioxide] were around 16,000 tons a year and now they are less than 2,000 tons a year, and this is happening all over the state of North Carolina. All the power plants have had to put in these scrubbers,” says Featherstone. “We are currently in compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”
According to Featherstone, clean air isn’t just about breathing well, it’s also a boon for the economy.
“The fine particle pollution, not only is it a serious health hazard, but it affects regional haze and it obscures mountain views when the particles are high, so it’s important for tourism as well. People come up here, they want to see the mountains and they want to have clean air if they’re out hiking.”
Despite funding challenges, Featherstone says she is happy to be doing her job in Asheville. “We live in an area where people care about air quality, and not all of our colleagues in air pollution control can say that.”