Canary gold

Hats off to all the Mountain Xpress readers — along with every citizen in Western North Carolina — who e-mailed, called and harassed their elected officials to support the Clean Smokestacks bill. We won! Now, we can look forward to 70-percent reductions in smokestack pollution over the next 10 years, as coal fired electric plants scrub up.

Hats off, as well, to Appalachian Voices, The Canary Coalition, Citizens for Transportation Planning, Clean Water for North Carolina, N.C. Interfaith Climate Change Campaign, N.C. Sustainable Energy Association and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project.

For 28 hours, this dedicated group of patriotic citizens held a small piece of ground in front of the N.C. State Capitol building. “Clean air can’t wait” was their message. This small band of determined Western North Carolinians manned two canopies and slept in a rented motel room in two-hour shifts so that they could convince returning legislators of the critical need to pass the Clean Smokestacks bill. They encouraged every passerby to sign a petition in support of passing SB 1078 intact, without a provision for trading pollution credits.

From Avram Friedman’s 9-year-old daughter, Merima, to the spirited Scott Gollwitzer of Appalachian Voices and the masterful musician Peter Friedman (no relation to Avram), everyone was engaged in bringing this issue of healthy air to the forefront — an especially difficult task in a year when budgets, maps and lotteries have dominated the hallways of Raleigh. Because they were there, the gift of success was theirs.

Early in the second day, a group of schoolchildren gathered for a tour of the Capitol building. This was quite unexpected so early in the session. Dr. Harvard Ayers with Appalachian Voices was walking the street with his enormous sign proclaiming, “Clean Air Now.” He decided to start the chant: “What do we want? Clean air. When do we want it? Now.” Unexpectedly, the children started to join in the chant. It was thrilling to hear the chorus of children’s voices replying “Clean air” and “now.” This continued for several minutes, as television cameras from Charlotte captured a very moving, spontaneous moment.

This wasn’t the only special moment. The evening before, a large, burly Capitol police officer approached the five or six people who were keeping the vigil at about 2 a.m. Their hearts fluttered and their minds turned to all sorts of imagined violations of the permit we had obtained in order to assemble. The police officer approached them, stuck out his hand and quickly handed Grady McCallie of the N.C. Conservation Network a newspaper before disappearing quickly into the night. When the relieved advocates opened the paper, they discovered it was USA Today, which featured an article on air pollution and public concerns and activity to curb it. Citizens care.

Because he was there, Dr. Harvard Ayers met a gentlemen who is involved in environmental curricula for North Carolina schools. His office just happened to be in the building to the right of where the vigil was being staged. He invited Dr. Ayers to come to his office and there they discussed ways they might get clean air into the curricula for North Carolina young people. Serendipitous?

The 28-hour event was capped off by the press event at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. Avram Friedman, director of The Canary Coalition, gave the opening remarks — listing statistics that have become all too common for us here in Western North Carolina:

• In 1999, North Carolina was the third highest state in the nation with violations of health standards for ozone pollution; only California and Texas were worse.

• The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now considered to be the most polluted national park in the United States, due to poor air quality.

• Between 1982 and 1994, asthma in children increased by 72 percent.

• Last year in this region, the air quality was considered healthy only one in four days during the ozone season. The ozone season is the same as the tourist season.

• Between 1988 and 1997, adult deaths due to breathing problems rose by 40 percent in Buncombe County.

Eleven legislators attended the rally, including Rep. Ronnie Smith, chairman of the Public Utilities Committee. Rep. Martin Nesbitt gave a resounding speech, clearly stating that without grassroots efforts and pressure, this bill would have never had a life. He commended The Canary Coalition and the other supporters of the bill, and asked them to continue making their voices heard.

U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Brown also attended this press conference and stated, “The discharge of the toxins that are emitted by the 14 coal-fired power plants owned by CP&L and Duke Power (nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury) is a clear threat to public health. It is equally clear that current law and regulatory enforcement have proven inadequate to protect public health. This is why passage of Senate Bill 1078, also known as the Healthy Air bill or the Clean Smokestacks bill, is essential. We need to give the agencies that are supposed to protect the public interest the mandate and the legal tools to do the job right.”

I was among the speakers, representing Citizens for Transportation Planning, a citizen-based group in Hendersonville which advocates for multi-modal planning transportation planning developed within the principles of smart growth. My remarks highlighted the fact that much of North Carolina’s pollution is homegrown, and that citizens have grown tired of the “excuses” for not passing the Clean Smokestacks bill.

Many people and organizations contributed to making this event a success. Notably, Earth Fare of Asheville provided food for the participants.

The result of all our advocacy, yours and mine? Listen to the report from N.C. Conservation Network lobbyist Grady McCallie: “Last Thursday, the bill sponsors, Rep. Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe) and Sen. Steve Metcalf (D-Buncombe) unveiled a new version of the bill in the House Public Utilities Committee. … The pollution reductions remained as strong as the original version of the bill.”

On Tuesday, June 11, the House Public Utilities Committee heard from interest groups and voted on the bill. Lobbyists for municipal and industrial electricity users offered support for the new version of the bill. Rep. Drew Saunders (R-Mecklenburg), a supporter of the bill, said sardonically, “It appears that NCCBI [North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry] has fallen off the fence, and I think it’s better late than never.”

One industry association opposed the bill, but was apparently unable to find a committee member to offer a desired amendment. Committee Chairman Ronnie Smith told the committee that the bill is “one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation we’ve had in this state for a long time,” and called the vote on a motion from Saunders. The bill passed on a voice vote, with only one legislator, Rep. Cary Allred, voting no.

Rep. Martin Nesbitt introduced and explained the bill on the floor of the House. House Environment Co-Chair Pryor Gibson (D-Montgomery) also spoke up, telling his colleagues that “it is time that we take hold of our environmental destiny.” Rep. Allred (R-Alamance) was one of the few legislators to speak against the bill. He complained that the bill will not address pollution from other states, proclaiming: “Clean air is like motherhood and apple pie; everyone wants clean air. But we don’t need to be falling on the sword and be a sacrificial lamb for good doers.”

Rep. Joe Hackney (D-Orange) stated that the cost we will pay for pollution control does not compare to the cost of taking “an asthmatic kid to the hospital on a code-red day, like today.” Rep. Phil Haire (D-Jackson), similarly asked, “Who can factor in the cost when you have to take your children or parents to the hospital because of poor health due to the poor air quality?” Rep. Gordon Allen, whose District 22 (Roxboro) includes one of the biggest pollution-emitting plants, declared glowingly, “I didn’t think I would live to see this day. This is a great day in N.C.”

On second reading, the Clean Smokestacks bill passed, 111-4. The four “no” votes were cast by Reps. Allred, Rex Baker (R-Stokes), Don Davis (R-Harnett) and Joe Kiser (R-Lincoln). The bill passed the third reading on a voice vote. It will return to the Senate for a concurrence vote — which is not expected to pose any obstacle — and then goes to Gov. Easley for his signature.

Sources on the floor say that Rep. Larry Justus (R-Henderson) spoke against the bill, but voted for it. Rep. Trudi Walend (R-Transylvania), on the other hand, was happy to support the bill: “I think it’s a good bill,” she noted.

It is a great day for North Carolina. The credit goes to every citizen who cared.

[Eva Ritchey is a member of Citizens for Transportation Planning, based in Hendersonville.]

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