This past Friday I got to spend time with the Western North Carolinian’s who live and breath air quality, professionally, at the 7th Annual WNC Air Quality Conference. The conference brought together leaders in the field– or sky rather–from local, state and federal government organizations to non-profit stakeholders, environmental groups, educators, and citizens. Ranking officials from the EPA and NC DAQ (Div. of Air Quality) set the context, detailing challenges and successes in the opening plenary session. The breakout sessions were diverse and covered topical interest areas like biofuels, solar, fracking, sustainability and health (A draft agenda can be found here).
The conference was held at Lenoir Rhyne University and was sponsored by the Reese Institute and the Unifour Air Quality Committee of the Western Piedmont Council of Governments. The conference will have the findings published by the Air and Waste Management Association.
The structure of the conference was straightforward: Plenary, morning breakout sessions, lunch, afternoon breakout sessions.
The general Federal and NC update was positive: air quality has improved. At the National level, PM2.5–fine particles– and ground-level ozone levels have been improving since 2003, which can be attributed to regulations on electric generating plants and vehicles, stationary and mobile sources. Though trending down since then, another significant drop occurred around 2009/10 with the downturn in the economy and favorable weather patterns. In terms of SOx2 the EPA is bringing states into compliance with their 2010 75 ppm standard (See EPA SO2 Strategy).
Mike Abraczinskas, Director Division of Air Quality, an agency of NC’s DENR, suggested that a state challenge may be impending to the EPA’s state-implementation-program (SIP) for SO2. He mentioned a monitor that is placed on the edge of a major highway. He questioned, how would this monitor be brought into compliance when it is directly exposed to SO2 emissions from passing vehicles? He highlighted the controversial interpretation of the Clean Air Act’s “Good Neighbor” clause, which states that down or upwind sources cannot negatively affect other state’s compliance. Vehicle emissions are largely dependent on the regulations on mobile sources. He noted that the Sahara Desert impacts NC air quality, and it’s difficult to pin down the source of emissions. Abraczinskas explained how this difficulty can result in trifle between states such as evidenced in the state of Maryland’s suggestion that NC contributes to their ozone problems in Baltimore, while NC DAQ sees the situation quite differently.
The EPA has an incremental approach to improving air quality by establishing maximum levels for each regulated air pollutant, ceilings which periodically drop lower with considerable political and legal challenge. Jeaneanne Gettle, EPA Deputy Director Air of the Pesticides, Toxics Management Division, commented that nearly every rule is met with legal challenge and joked that the EPA rarely meets their deadlines for establishing new rules. These NC standards are maintained with a network of monitors in states that measure these various compounds in the air. If a monitor is out of compliance penalties and corrective actions can be issued by the EPA or, alternatively, citizens can pursue legal action.
The Clean Air Act, first enacted in 1970, laid the foundation for further air quality standards. Like interstate commerce, air quality has the capacity for comprehensive cross-cutting significance. Since regulatory action on one air-borne compound can penetrate many facets of industry, as well as public life, every aspect of air quality is politically volatile. Take for instance the process of acknowledging human impact on climate change and the translation of this scientific evidence into the regulation of greenhouse gasses– a progression at rates akin to those of geologic time. After the Supreme Court brought greenhouse gasses into the purview of the Clean Air Act in the Massachusetts v. EPA case in 2007, the EPA has just proposed limits on CO2 emissions of new fossil-fuel power plants as of March 27, 2012 (Supreme Court Background and New Proposal). It is obvious that air quality is a highly contested political sphere.
To illustrate the interconnected nature of air quality issues, I give the following account. The state of NC enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002 demanding a 77% NOx reduction and a 73% SOx reduction in 2013 from 1998 levels (read more here). This act basically led to “scrubbers” being installed in coal-fired power plants. The captured coal-combustion waste, filtered by the scrubbers, is stored in coal-ash ponds, which are not specifically regulated, and have violated groundwater levels for toxic compounds like arsenic, cadmium, and selenium. A study from Duke’s Nicholas School in 2012 was a landmark study on this topic for NC (see article on study). Just March of this year the NC Division of Water Quality sued progress energy for groundwater contamination from these ponds (Read about it here) .
The Center for the Environment’s Campaign for Clean Air ties into this larger regulatory picture by educating the public on air quality issues in the Rowan-Cabarrus region. This work is similar to that of other groups in different areas of NC, including the air awareness program (learn about the NC program here).
The Center has done significant outreach with educators and schools. A success story is the Center’s development of a No-Idling toolkit that creates a no-idling school zone and develops student leadership in program marketing to parents and media (found here). Sheila Williams led this initiative and creatively tied in the use of academic disciplines such as math in the student-led evaluation of the program’s success by having students calculate before and after idling times at their school.