CIBO’s plan: Business as usual

A recent commentary titled “CIBO’s plan for improving the air” [R.M. Swicegood, Aug. 9 Xpress] purported to address a topic of widespread local interest. Unfortunately, if there was something in the plan that was really going to help, I couldn’t find it.

The CIBO plan for improving the air is not a plan, it’s a tactic: Let’s continue with business as usual while pointing the finger at other sources of polluted air “that generally migrates over our area.”

It’s bad enough that CIBO proposes doing nothing. But what’s worse is the fact that some of our contaminated air migrates into this area from Haywood County, where business and farming interests recently pressured the county commissioners to withdraw from the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, in order to avoid regulations they found inconvenient. One might interpret that as a sign of how ready the local business community is to help with the problem.

Swicegood’s article was based on a collection of inaccurate quotes and information, some of it more than 10 years old. From this, CIBO would have us suppose that because much of our air pollution originates elsewhere, we really shouldn’t be expected to do anything about the problem. The trouble is, CIBO bases its entire stand on information obtained for another purpose — and takes the further liberty of equating conditions at high elevations with those in the valleys. But anyone who has noticed the morning cloud masses lying in our valleys while the ridge tops are clear knows that there can be a big difference between the air up high and that down below.

On the basis of outdated information, CIBO clings to the cherished notion that only 16 percent of our air pollution is produced locally. But even if we accept this inaccurate figure, it fails to justify doing nothing. As marvelous as the human body may be, I have trouble envisioning how the lungs of, say, an asthmatic child are going to be able to tell the difference between locally produced ozone and ozone that “migrated in.” Is airborne pollution that’s generated here somehow easier to breathe?

The CIBO attempt to throw light on our present situation by quoting Dr. Robert Bruck of N.C. State University is misleading. In 1989, Bruck made the statement, “More than 80 percent of the time [italics mine] air parcels reaching the Southern Appalachian Mountains were coming from the northwest, west or southwest.” This was in connection with a study of high-altitude forest damage that he was involved in. Bruck is a plant pathologist, but the study was headed by NCSU scientists from the department of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences. (DMEAS). Bruck did not say “84 percent of the air pollution,” as claimed by the CIBO commentary.

The EPA funded this study, called the Mountain Cloud Chemistry Program, to evaluate the air at higher elevations (1,000 meters or more). One of the meteorological measuring stations used in the study was located on Mount Mitchell (elevation: 1,950 meters). The study was not designed to reveal anything about Asheville’s air.

The DMEAS has conducted many studies since 1989. For example, in 1991, Professor V.P. Aneja and his co-workers looked at the relationship between ozone concentrations and wind direction at Mount Mitchell. They found that both daytime and nighttime ozone concentrations were higher when the wind direction was between 270 and 360 degrees. They concluded that the air they studied on Mount Mitchell received high levels of ozone or ozone precursors as it moved across the Midwestern states on its way south. Although the TVA is a notorious polluter, this was not ozone “migrating in” from that source.

With respect to the suggestion that we are but passive recipients of air pollution coming from elsewhere, Aneja states in a 1993 issue of Air & Waste Journal, “Great variations in concentrations [of pollutants sampled at Mount Mitchell] were found which can best be explained … by different source locales and moving air masses.” That seems to mean that pollution can come from one place on one occasion and a different place another time. Still, he was talking about high-elevation air.

I suppose we should take our honors where we find them, and the Bent Creek air-sampling station has begun the new millennium with a local first: Ozone concentrations have already exceeded the safe limit seven times this year, according to the WNC Air Quality Agency. Bent Creek is in a valley, meaning we now have our very own ozone. It also means that we can no longer take comfort in the fact that high-elevation ozone might have come from outside the area: Our low-elevation ozone problem here is very likely locally produced.

Aneja’s study reported on a number of contaminants in the clouds sampled at Mount Mitchell, stating: “The relative distribution of more than one [compound] … is very similar to those observed in urban air. Therefore, it is likely that the source of these compounds is reasonably close to the mountain collection site. In fact, the city of Asheville, NC is about 30 km southwest of the site; Burnsville, NC, is about 15 km northwest of the site and the town of Black Mountain … is only about 15 km south. … It is quite conceivable that vehicular exhaust from these areas … and from Interstate Highway 40 … contributed. This is further supported by the wind direction during most of the sampling period.” I interpret this to mean that the polluted air reported by Hugh Morton could very well be produced here in our area, not in the Tennessee Valley.

CIBO’s position on this issue raises some peculiar questions. They seem to be saying that, because the majority of the pollution comes from elsewhere, how can our little bit matter? Yet they resist dealing even with that little bit (which CIBO seems to believe is a trivial amount). They suggest that they want to face the problem by offering a “plan for improving the air.” But even if the majority of the pollution originates elsewhere, and we do nothing about our contribution, can we really insist that “the other guy” clean up his act?

It used to be a rule that one should clean up one’s own back yard first. Why should it be so difficult to envision local sources contributing to the ozone measured at Bent Creek, not to mention the sulfur dioxide? Large, steam-generating plants owned by CP&L, BASF and Champion are within easy range. But they’ve been in place for some time, so those seven ozone-limit violations probably owe a great deal to the increased popularity of SUVs and light trucks, plenty of which are locally owned. With our increasing population, there simply has to be more effort made to control air pollution.

We know where many of the problems lie; some we can fix, others we cannot. How about CIBO assuming some leadership in tackling our own problems first?

Forest entomologist Allen Thomas has lived in Asheville since 1982. He retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1994.

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