BY MEGAN TAYLOR
My family lives in Weaverville. Over the last 10 years, northern Buncombe County’s landscape has greatly changed as a result of large and small residential development. Our region certainly needs more housing, especially affordable housing, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of community members’ health and well-being.
Unfortunately, after clearing forestland to make way for construction, developers often choose to burn the downed trees and plant material, and the resulting smoke threatens both neighboring residents and our shared environment. In effect, open burning in residential areas creates mini-forest fires with the potential for profound local consequences that may not be detected by remote air quality monitors.
Currently, in unincorporated areas of Buncombe County, developers are allowed to burn leaves, brush and tree limbs up to 12 inches in diameter, in piles at least 500 feet from the nearest occupied structure.
But the smoke produced by open burning of vegetation and other organic materials contains toxic gases, carcinogens and particulate matter that is small enough to enter the lungs. According to the American Lung Association, the health effects resulting from exposure to this smoke can include acute asthma aggravation, bronchitis, emphysema and lung infections, as well as increased risk of heart attacks and cancer. The elderly, young children and people with existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to these impacts.
Bad air days
Asheville’s air quality has generally been very good since the coal-fired power plants in Tennessee and South Asheville were modified or closed. However, during the large forest fires in 2016, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality officially labeled our air quality unhealthy, due primarily to high levels of particulate matter. The local air quality agency maintains monitoring sites for particulate matter at the Buncombe County Schools’ central office, more than 10 miles from my home in the Reems Creek Valley.
One of the main tenets of conservation agriculture is that burning is bad: It kills important soil microorganisms, pollutes the water, leads to erosion and is toxic to the soil. I checked in with Meghan Baker, a small-farms specialist with the Buncombe County office of N.C. Cooperative Extension, who agreed that burning has negative consequences. She noted, however, that in certain circumstances it can be an effective way to minimize disease pressure on woody plants. But Baker added that most farmers in our area don’t use the practice, since they grow herbaceous vegetable crops and tend to favor sustainable, regenerative approaches.
I also contacted Ashley Featherstone, director of the Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency, who said that in her experience, most of the burns that generate a lot of smoke and complaints are associated with the construction of big developments and subdivisions. Featherstone stressed that no burning can occur before 8 a.m. and no wood can be added to an existing fire after 6 p.m., because smoke gets trapped close to the ground at night due to temperature inversions. Otherwise, open burning is allowed except on days designated Code Orange or higher, or on dry, windy days when the fire marshal restricts it. Code Orange days are those that exceed the standards for particulate matter or ground level ozone, as detected at the monitoring stations.
In 2011, she explained, the N.C. General Assembly reduced the statewide setback requirement for open burning from 1,000 feet to 500. Since then, she said, her agency has seen an increase in open burning-related complaints.
Is there a better way?
North Carolina allows local governments to impose stricter regulations than the state’s minimum requirements. The town of Weaverville has done this, approving a more restrictive ordinance than the current rules for unincorporated areas of Buncombe County. Weaverville’s ordinance allows campfires, agricultural best practices and Fire Department training but prohibits most other open burning within the town’s jurisdiction. Leaf and brush pickup is provided, and any Buncombe County resident or contractor can bring tree and leaf materials to the county facility, where they’re chipped and composted for a charge of $20 a ton.
Perhaps the county commissioners would consider waiving this charge to discourage burning and encourage conservation. Providing low-cost pickup and composting would also help.
Developers also have other options for dealing with vegetative debris generated by land clearing. Small tree limbs, stumps, brush and leaves can be chipped, shredded or ground up on-site and repurposed as mulch or for erosion control or walking paths, rather than having to remove them. In addition, state law allows developers to burn trees and vegetation in an air curtain incinerator that minimizes the amount of smoke and particulate matter produced.
Considering the potential for harm, however, developers shouldn‘t generally be allowed to practice open burning just because it’s cheaper and/or easier for them than other disposal methods. Perversely, allowing land to be strip-cleared and the resulting debris to be burned actually encourages unnecessary tree removal during construction, whether as a matter of convenience or to create optimal views. This increases the risk of erosion while robbing the community of trees. Essentially, these developers are imposing the health and environmental impacts of their actions on others for their own financial benefit.
What you can do
Individual homeowners can also do their part by composting organic material on their property, which is both simpler and safer than either burning or removing it. For those needing guidance, Asheville GreenWorks provides free educational seminars on composting. I simply rake our yard debris into a pile that naturally decays, adding nutrients to the soil. These practices are better for us and for our shared environment.
Residents’ health shouldn’t have to suffer when there are practical alternatives to open burning. I have started asking Buncombe County to follow Weaverville’s lead in banning most open burning of brush and debris. To be clear, this is not about campfires or burning wood for cooking or heating.
As our population continues to grow, we are putting more and more people at risk due to the health effects of breathing smoke. If you agree, please stand with your like-minded neighbors by signing the petition. The more signatures we can collect, the more support it will create for stricter regulation that will improve both the local environment and our community’s health.
Retired physician Megan Taylor is a board-certified internist and allergy/immunology/asthma specialist. She’s lived in Weaverville for 10 years.