As I’ve grown into elderhood, I’ve learned that certain elements of my life keep recurring: sensing injustice, speaking out and taking action, especially around caring for our land, air and water.
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh when it was known as the Smoky City. In 1946, when I was 3, Mayor David Lawrence said, “I am convinced that our people want clean air. There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, the spirit of the city.” By 1954, Pittsburgh’s air was 90 percent cleaner, and by the time I left the city in 1965 to pursue medical training, clean air had become a necessity.
When I was attending medical school and doing a residency in Philadelphia and New York City, air pollution was a terrible and visible fact of daily life. And when our family settled in Winston-Salem in 1975, I was disappointed to discover that despite the community’s beauty, we lived in a bowl collecting pollution that was readily visible to the naked eye.
When we moved to Western North Carolina in 1998, we thought we’d entered paradise, but as many longtime residents will remember, there was dirty air hanging over downtown Asheville and a significant number of bad-air days, especially in the summer.
As an emergency room doc, I personally witnessed the effects of dirty air, particularly on older adults with chronic respiratory diseases and kids with asthma. While my professional life allowed me to help individuals, I quickly learned that Asheville was home to a large number of actively engaged citizens with visionary insight and a willingness to take action, the way David Lawrence had in Pittsburgh. I quickly joined the broad coalition, including the Western North Carolina Alliance (now known as MountainTrue) that had started working on cleaning up our local air, in collaboration with state Sens. Steve Metcalf and Martin Nesbitt. The Alliance, the Canary Coalition and Appalachian Voices formed the regional backbone of the statewide, grassroots effort to help get the Clean Smokestacks Act passed in 2002.
It was the first state-level legislative effort to correct loopholes in the federal Clean Air Act, and it eventually led to the retirement of many older coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. Progress Energy and Duke Energy elected to put modern pollution controls on other plants, including the Asheville plant in Arden, to remove harmful nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from the smokestacks’ emissions. Scrubbers were installed in 2006 and ’07, and as far as we knew, the problem was solved. The air would be clean: We could breathe easier.
But unbeknownst to most of us, Progress Energy had been in discussion with Buncombe County for two years about building a supplemental diesel-powered plant that would kick in during periods of peak demand.
Asheville/Buncombe residents first heard of these discussions on Dec. 2, 2006, and on Jan. 16, 2007, the county commissioners, with little public discussion, agreed to lease 78 acres of property in Woodfin to Progress Energy for $1 a year as a site for this facility.
Public outrage over this issue was amazing. Ordinary citizens, environmentalists and businesspeople organized and showed up at the Woodfin Planning and Zoning Board’s April 2 public hearing. Medical testimony bolstered the arguments against the plant, and the board unanimously voted to deny Progress Energy a conditional use permit for the land.
And with that plan defeated and scrubbers in place, I guess many of us were lulled into some sort of complacency. But the mere fact that we can’t see something doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there, and meanwhile, the Sierra Club’s Asheville Beyond Coal campaign commissioned two studies of sulfur dioxide emissions from the Arden plant. The results were released last month, and we now know that since 2010, when the current permit was issued, the coal-fired facility has regularly been emitting SO2 at levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe for human health.
Part of the problem is that the scrubbers aren’t being operated in accordance with their designed efficiency rating. In addition, the utility is using cheaper, higher-sulfur-content coal. Beyond those immediate concerns, however, lies a deeper issue: The SO2 limits in the plant’s current permit are inadequate to begin with. According to the Sierra Club’s studies, those limits would allow SO2 emissions at 79.3 times the level that would be needed to meet the EPA’s human health standard.
Luckily, we’re once again in a position to get our air cleaned up. The WNC Regional Air Quality Agency is writing a new permit, as required under Title V of the Clean Air Act; once finalized, it will be submitted to the EPA for approval.
The first draft of that permit has now been made available for public review, but the agency didn’t change the SO2 limits. And in fact, the plant could meet those proposed standards without even using the scrubbers it already has, thus undoing all the good work our community and state accomplished by passing the Clean Smokestacks Act.
I guess David Lawrence’s wisdom and spirit live on in me, as I, too, “am convinced that our people want clean air. There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, the spirit of the city.”
Once again we are called to come together for our community’s well-being. We succeeded twice before: We can do it again. The Air Quality Board is composed of our neighbors — regular people whose primary concern should be our common welfare.
Our most immediate task is simple: show up at the public hearing on Wednesday, April 29, at 6 p.m. at Erwin High School. We need to demonstrate to this board that it must write a permit that’s in line with the best public health science and that can be enforced by the EPA. If you can’t come to the hearing, sign our petition or email your comments to the Air Quality Board (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Mars Hill resident Richard Fireman, a retired physician, is a founding member of Elders Fierce for Justice and a volunteer with Asheville Beyond Coal. He also served on Progress Energy’s Community Energy Advisory Council.