By Catherine Clabby
Celebrating the fact that pollution regulations have cleaned our air, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality last week published a before-and-after image of a Great Smoky Mountains National Park vista.
On the left side of a photo simulation meant to duplicate conditions in the 1990s, heavy haze obscures a mountain view. But on the right, it’s 2015 and the sky is clear enough that a ridge barely visible before pops into view.
“The visibility improvements are a direct result of state and federal measures to reduce air pollution,” a DEQ press release published Tuesday announced. “Air quality monitoring shows that levels of key pollutants have dropped dramatically over this time period, resulting from a series of state and federal measures that led to emissions reductions from industry, power plants and motor vehicles.”
DEQ credits several state and federal regulations, especially North Carolina’s 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which required coal-fired power plant operators to reduce polluting air emissions by about three quarters over 10 years.
Such changes, along with other government measures, produced improved health for North Carolinians, according to a 2014 Duke University study. Among the gains are reduced death rates from emphysema, asthma and pneumonia in the state.
Environmental groups concur that regulations imposed in years past, particularly the Clean Smokestacks Act, have improved air quality. But rather than celebrating this summer, they are sounding alarms about what they view as growing deficiencies in air quality protection in the state.
A darker view
“Once recognized as a leader in stewardship, North Carolina is now a cautionary tale for environmental rollbacks that threaten the state’s heritage,” is the way the Southern Environmental Law Center this week introduced their report: “Dismantled. The North Carolina Government’s Attack on Environmental Protection.”
The report argues that the Republican leadership of the General Assembly has weakened the state’s tradition of innovative environmental regulations since 2011, when it passed a law prohibiting state agencies from imposing environmental rules more stringent than federal rules.
NC Health News contacted North Carolina Senator Leader Phil Berger’s office requesting a comment on the SELC report but did not receive a response.
SELC faults several other changes including:
- In 2012, the legislature exempted most industrial plants from what’s called the state air toxics program. It imposed limits on the emissions of 100 hazardous chemicals, as long as the plants comply with federal toxics limits, which policed a smaller roster of threats, about 80 chemicals. Supporters of the legislation, passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed by former Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, promoted the change to reduce redundant regulation and cut unnecessary costs to businesses. DEQ’s Department of Air Quality retains the power to impose state standards on plants posing “unacceptable health risks.”
- In 2015, the legislature repealed a five-minute per hour idling limit (with some exceptions) for diesel-powered, heavy-duty vehicles. Exhaust from unfiltered diesel exhaust has been shown to hinder lung function and, during allergic reactions, can cause airways to constrict, especially among people with asthma. Diesel exhaust in particular emits nitrogen oxides (NOx), a greenhouse gas and a chemical precursor to ozone, and particulates, microscopic bits of soot small enough to enter people’s lung tissue and blood stream.
- In 2015 the legislature reduced the number of air quality monitors that DEQ operates in North Carolina, from more than 125 to about 75, saying most weren’t being used to track pollution.
There is no love lost between DEQ and SELC. SELC lawyers have challenged state regulators’ enforcement of environmental laws repeatedly in courtrooms in recent years. Battles over DEQ’s approach to forcing Duke Energy to clean up 100 tons of coal ash rank among the highest profile scuffles between the two of late.
DEQ Jabs Back
Stephanie Hawco, DEQ deputy secretary for public affairs, on Thursday said SELC’s characterizations of her agency in the new report are a distortion.
“The Southern Environmental Lawsuit Center has never let the truth get in the way of fearmongering, falsehoods and fundraising,” Hawco said.
“North Carolinians are breathing cleaner air today than at any time in decades,” she said. “For the first time in 20 years every area of the state meets all federal air quality standards, ozone levels were among the lowest on record in 2015, and emissions from large sources are down 90 percent.”
To counter what they have described as distortions by critics, DEQ leaders in recent years have defended the reforms on multiple publishing platforms. In this 2015 video, Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder defends a long list of changes mandated by the 2015 Regulatory Reform Act.
But SELC is not alone in its criticism of the direction North Carolina’s air pollution control efforts are taking.
Jamie Cole, a policy advocate with the NC Conservation Network, opposes a Division of Air Quality rule that takes effect this month that exempts about 1,100 small facilities from state permitting if they release less than 10 tons of emissions per year. Facilities that are not exempt but which emit less than 25 tons into the atmosphere – about 320 sites in the state – can register rather than go through the steps to obtain a state permit.
“There was no consideration of cumulative impact,” Cole said. “We have examples of communities that have more than one facility that will go unpermitted. The impact would be different if a community only has one facility.”
In a guest column in the Asheville Citizen-Times this month, Sheila Holman, director of the DEQ Division of Air Quality, stressed that the new approach, affecting about 1 percent of emissions from factories and businessses, does not remove or relax emissions standards.
“The resources that are freed up by reducing paperwork for very small sources of air pollution will be focused on additional inspections and on larger, more environmentally significant sources of emissions,” she wrote.
Clean Air Carolina in Charlotte is among the environmental groups still convinced this summer that DEQ should do more.
In the wake of the legislature’s repeal of the diesel-engine-idling rule, Clean Air is asking DEQ to consider a middle road. It is requesting that some idling limits be kept near places where particulate emissions are highest and near schools. Clean Air is also recommending that the state educate diesel-powered vehicle operators about the health risks that emissions pose.
The health-advocacy organization is also urging DEQ to put teeth into limits, required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to emissions limits a manufacturing plant or another emitter can release while turning on production equipment, shutting it down, or weathering a repair, all times when emissions can rise.
In other words, said Terry Lansdell, Clean Air’s program director, efforts to improve air quality has made great strides. But the work is not yet done.
“We need to make visible what is invisible,” Lansdell said of the chemicals and microscopic soot still being released into our air. “Otherwise we live in a state of denial.”