Air quality’s improving — but let’s not get complacent

Bill Eaker
Bill Eaker

BY BILL EAKER

On March 20, local, state and federal officials, Duke Energy representatives and others briefed local media on air quality conditions, trends and programs both statewide and here in Western North Carolina. The great news is that air quality has improved significantly. Concentrations of ground-level ozone and fine particulates have dropped tremendously over the past 15 years, and visibility has also improved, making it easier to enjoy our beautiful mountain vistas.

This is a remarkable environmental success story! Many agencies and organizations can be proud of their contributions to this. Together, they’ve demonstrated that bold action at many different levels can successfully address serious environmental issues.

How did this take place? What was done to reverse the situation? Who took the lead? Here’s my perspective on what happened.

In the mid-’90s, two air quality experts, Jim Renfro with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Bill Jackson with the U.S. Forest Service here in Asheville, sounded the alarm. The entire Southern Appalachian region, they said, was suffering impacts from air pollution, both locally generated and what blew in from adjacent areas. Monitors, particularly those at high elevations, were showing serious readings for ground-level ozone that sometimes exceeded federal air quality standards. In fact, WNC was very close to being designated a “nonattainment area” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would have had significant consequences.

Fine particulate matter in the air was scattering sunlight, creating a thick layer of haze that made it hard to see the mountains. Folks in the tourism industry worried about the impact of that on our economy. Meanwhile, acid deposition, both wet and dry, was saturating mountain soils with nitrogen and sulfur compounds that were affecting the health of our forests and aquatic resources. Our high-elevation evergreen forests became more susceptible to tree-killing insects like the balsam woolly adelgid. Fishermen and fish farmers alike were concerned about the impact on our beautiful but pollution-sensitive native brook trout.

For the most part, those of us working in local and regional governments hadn’t been aware of the seriousness of our air quality problems until that alarm was sounded. Staff here at the Land of Sky Regional Council were caught by surprise: For 20 years, we’d been busy working to clean up the water quality of the French Broad River and its many tributaries, and we knew very little about air quality management.

Clearly, we all had a lot to learn about air pollution — and pronto. So we got a small grant to assess the situation and figure out how to address it. We met with all the experts and got good dialogue going among the appropriate players.

One recommendation was creating a regional education-and-outreach program to inform local and state officials and community leaders. In 1998, key partners launched a regional Clean Air Campaign in the Asheville metro, putting the word out through public service announcements, news releases, interviews, presentations to all kinds of groups, and interacting with the public at community events such as Bele Chere. The campaign increased public awareness of both the problems and potential solutions.

After that, the state secretary of environment and natural resources, who was from Asheville, proposed a broader awareness campaign, the Mountain Air Quality Coalition, to spread the message across WNC. We met with Gov. Jim Hunt at the Grove Park Inn to brief him on our efforts and seek his support. He was totally committed and hosted the first Governors Summit on Mountain Air Quality in Asheville in 1999 to get the heads of adjacent states to buy in as well.

The governors of the eight Southern Appalachian states teamed up with various state and federal agencies, the utilities serving those areas and other key partners to form the Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative. By pooling technical and financial resources, SAMI was able to study the problems, conduct additional air quality monitoring and modeling, and prepare technical reports outlining various options for fixing the problems.

North Carolina played a key role in SAMI and also took the lead by enacting the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002. Two Asheville-area legislators, Sen. Steve Metcalf and Rep. Martin Nesbitt, introduced the bill. This was landmark environmental legislation! It required utilities to reduce their nitrogen oxide emissions by 77 percent and cut sulfur dioxide emissions in half by 2009. The utilities, state agencies and other key players agreed to these provisions, ensuring that the law would be passed. The law also authorized the state attorney general to sue entities in other states whose emissions were affecting North Carolina.

The combination of a lawsuit and pending federal emission control requirements persuaded the Tennessee Valley Authority to shut down some of its oldest and most polluting coal-fired power plants and install additional emission controls on the others. The steps taken by North Carolina utilities and the TVA probably had the most inflluence on our air quality, but other state and federal programs, including federal fuel economy and emission standards and cleaner fuels, helped as well.

Local groups also took action. The WNC Regional Air Quality Agency got grants to retrofit Buncombe County school buses and firetrucks with emission reduction devices. In addition, the agency led an anti-idling campaign. Many entities joined the Land-of-Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition and began switching to more fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles. The annual Strive Not to Drive Campaign (coming up May 12-19) encourages citizens to take mass transit, carpool, telecommute, walk and bike. The Clean Air Campaign’s motto is “Working Together We Can Clear the Air,” and that’s exactly what has happened.

But we can’t afford to get complacent. Our region is growing rapidly, and that brings more industry, homes to heat and cool, vehicles, lawn mowers and other sources of air emissions. In addition, the federal air quality standards keep getting stronger, to better protect public health and the environment. For these reasons, we must do all we can to lower our emissions and ensure that this remains one of the most beautiful and desirable places in the world to live. It’s our responsibility!

Senior environmental planner Bill Eaker coordinates the Land of Sky Regional Council’s Clean Air Campaign and Clean Vehicles Coalition. Contact him at bill@landofsky.org.

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