In response to “Q&A: Ashley Featherstone of Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency” [April 20, Xpress]:
I live in Buncombe County and for decades, my neighbors have burned trash. The fumes come inside my house and blanket my property. I instantly get a headache breathing it. It burns the throat and eyes. I have videoed the black smoke. And have called the Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency many times. And AQA will not send anyone there without a police escort.
What I’m complaining about is the ineffectiveness of trying to put an end to this burning. I have to catch them burning during business hours. Often, they burn at night or on the weekends, knowing AQA is closed. If they slack and burn on a weekday, it takes hours for AQA to get the police escort, and by then, the evidence is gone. The neighbors are burning in smaller batches now, so there are shorter fires and less smoke. AQA has to get permission to search the property if they can’t see obvious smoke. (The smell remains, and they do smell it, but they must dig through the fire itself to confirm.)
And I recently learned that if the perpetrators are caught, the next step is that papers are served and they must appear in court. Only then they might receive a fine. I know that the neighbors have a radio scanner. They will vacate the premises if they know any officers are coming. And they almost always seem to know.
I’m not blaming AQA, let me be clear. But the system is set up for limited effectiveness. For 30 years, it’s gone on!
One solution could be for AQA to acquire the means for a quick response and to have the authority, once the evidence is found, to fine them on the spot. This would be after a initial warning. I know if they were put out $200 for a first fine with increasing amounts after, that would likely end it.
I think this would help reduce trash burning in our mountains still further. It is frustrating to no end that I had to raise my child in this situation and still today must live with these conditions.
— Name withheld
Editor’s note: Xpress contacted the Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office with a summary of the letter writer’s points (and permission to disclose the writer’s address to the agencies) and received the following responses:
James Raiford, permitting program manager, replied on behalf of the AQA: “The Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency responds to all complaints about open burning. Burning trash is illegal in Buncombe County. There are certain cases that the agency will ask for assistance from the Sheriff’s Office if it is believed that the violator could be a danger to our staff. Illegal burning after normal business hours should be reported by calling 911 so the fire department and/or our agency can respond.
“If illegal burning is found during a complaint investigation, a notice of violation will be issued, and this may include a civil penalty of up to $750 for an individual for a first offense. The civil penalty is issued via certified mail, and if the violator does not sign for this document, our agency will seek assistance from the county Sheriff’s Office for delivery. If the penalty is not paid, our agency will begin a legal process of securing the penalty.
“We have responded to complaints at the address associated with this letter. The most recent investigation occurred in December of 2021, and no evidence of the burning of illegal materials was found. We will continue to investigate complaints at this location.”
Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Aaron Sarver provided a list of records showing the department had responded to multiple requests for service at the writer’s address: “Speaking solely for the Sheriff’s Office, the residents at [the writer’s address] are not happy with the outcome, despite numerous visits by the Sheriff’s Office to both addresses. … I frequently deal with this scenario, where community members are advised of their rights and what action can be taken by the BCSO or Buncombe County, and when their desired outcome is not met, they threaten to or go to the media, thinking this will cause us to change course or handle the situation in a more expedited manner. The Sheriff’s Office has devoted significant time and resources to this matter, and we stand by our response.”