Walk across the bridge

On July 10, I walked from downtown Asheville to the office of the WNC Air Quality Agency, located on Mt. Carmel Road near Erwin High School. It is my personal policy to walk to all meetings concerning air pollution, so that I arrive with a “fresh” reminder of the severe toxicity of the air in our area.

After a death-defying run across I-240, I crossed the Smokey Park Bridge over the French Broad River, heading into West Asheville at the Westgate Shopping Center. I’d never walked that bridge. I hope I never have to again. By the time I reached the other side, I was staggered by the intensity of the seething fumes clogging the caged walkway. It was like a lethal gas chamber. In all my walking experiences through urban areas, I’d never encountered anything like it. At two different points, the pockets of stagnant air were so overpowering that I nearly passed out.

As I walked along Patton Avenue and then up Leicester Highway — dodging the racing, mindless traffic, still barely able to breathe — the stench of pollution was eclipsed by my horror at the outright denial of so many people who think we live in a progressive era of prosperity.

When I finally reached the relative seclusion of the air agency, I lay down in the grass and pressed my nose to the ground in order to breathe fresh sustenance into my being.

I don’t have a compendium of statistics to present to you, or readings from millions of dollars’ worth of monitoring equipment, or the “expert” opinions of agencies and commissions. All I have are my lungs and my life, and they tell me that we are in a state of emergency that requires our immediate and unmitigated attention.

I know that in a period of “boom time” economics, it’s like spitting in the wind to try and convince the masses to economize and downsize. I realize that we are a population further removed from the outdoors and the natural world than perhaps any other in any period in history, and that most of us do not have a clue as to the severity of the crisis.

Then, when the relative minority who do understand proclaim the warnings, they are labeled as radical environmentalists, tree-huggers and alarmists, and accused of impeding the inevitable advance of progress.

I challenge the naysayers to walk across that bridge — or, for that matter, along any of our major thoroughfares — at rush hour.

One walk across that bridge might even convince the representatives of the Council of Independent Business Owners that, even if only 15 percent of the air pollution in our area is produced locally, that mere 15 percent is enough to eventually contaminate all of us. Maybe a little stroll along the bridge at 5 p.m. would be enough of a feasibility study to convince Gov. Hunt and the NCDOT that a six- or eight-lane interstate through downtown Asheville is not acceptable — nor is there any room for compromise.

Several days after walking the bridge, I met with two of our city officials (nonelected) and reported my experience. I suggested the need to downsize the city’s massive fleet of oversized vehicles. During the course of our discussions, there were 54 police cars parked around City Hall, most of them Crown Victorias, which cost the city $32,000 each (fully equipped). According to Consumer Reports, they get approximately 17 mpg in the city. One of the officials said I was wasting his time. The other one said I was “full of it” and needed to do my homework. Perhaps they could do their homework and sit in that gas chamber for a while, inhaling the odors of prosperity.

In 1974, the entire industrialized world downsized in the face of the oil crisis. People, across the board — in the industrial, commercial and private sectors — took hasty measures to conserve. Within a couple of years, you could hardly find an oversized gas-guzzler anywhere. And the automobile industry still thrived, police work continued unhindered, and the job market survived. Among most people, there was a spirit of conservation and a renewed mindfulness of the limitations of our resources. Many effective, alternative-energy solutions surfaced. People worked together to radically alter the patterns of overconsumption, and we were all the better for it.

The pollution crisis of 2000 is having a far more devastating and pervasive effect than the 1974 oil crisis. It is easy to blame our problems on SUV owners, CP&L, Wal-Mart, the state, the city, et al. Of course, they will have to assume a major role, but the solution lies primarily with individual consumers — me and you. There’s often a wide disparity between what we preach and what we actually do. We must clean up our own back yard — our homes, our community and our region. Downsize, economize, conserve and, most importantly, pray for a national reckoning of this plague of self-indulgence.

The air-pollution crisis is not about politics, environmentalism, the job market, the tourist trade or the growth of industry and commerce. It is about our most basic and vital resources, the very sustenance of our lives.

Remember: If you have any doubt about the severity of the pollution and its threat to our lives, just walk across that bridge.

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