Lawmakers weigh NC air pollution

The state's Air Toxics pollution prevention program got a chilly reception from some state lawmakers today.

Posted Updated

Laura Leslie

The head of the state’s Division of Air Quality faced a tough crowd at this morning’s meeting of the Environmental Review Commission.

DAQ chief Sheila Holman gave a presentation on the state’s Air Toxics program, which monitors toxic pollution levels at industrial sites across the state. The program was put in place in advance of the federal Clean Air Act. Some critics say it’s duplicative of federal efforts and too burdensome for businesses.

The program was targeted by Republican lawmakers this session in S308, a bill that would abolish it outright. S308 received a favorable vote in the House Environment Committee at the end of last session, and could be brought to the House floor at any time. Another measure that passed this year, S781, requires the state's Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources to review all its rules, report those that are stricter than federal standards, and take steps to repeal them.

Holman told lawmakers that while the federal EPA program focuses on using technology to improve air quality overall, it doesn’t evaluate the public health effects of pollution. The state program monitors specific facilities that produce toxic pollution to see if they’re endangering the health of surrounding communities.

The state program also monitors 23 pollutants that the federal government doesn’t.

“When we talk about the federal hazardous air pollutants, we’re talking about things like benzene,” Holman explained. “When we talk about the NC Air Toxics program, we’re talking about things like ammonia and arsenic. These are pollutants that have significant impact on the human body.”

In 2007, Holman told the committee, industries with EPA permits in North Carolina reported emitting an estimated 38 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants (as defined by federal law).

ERC co-chairman Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, found that difficult to believe. “I know there’s not 38 million pounds of pollution in the air. That’s not reasonable to me,” he said.

“It sounds like an awful lot of air pollutants,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, “but I want to know how we compare to other states. Who makes these estimates?”

Holman explained that the permit-holders themselves report their estimates to the EPA annually through the Toxics Release Inventory program. In 2007, North Carolina was ranked 4th highest in the country for hazardous air pollutants.
Some lawmakers said they’d heard complaints from regulated industries that the state’s permitting process for toxics is too restrictive, too slow, and too expensive. Earlier this year, several industry representatives sent letters to lawmakers detailing their concerns about the program.

Senator Don East, R-Surry, wanted more data on the program, including how much it costs and how it assesses its performance. “How do we know that you’re being effective?” asked. “How do we know that you’re doing any good?”

Holman couldn’t immediately provide that information, but said it would be sent to the committee in advance of its next meeting in October.

East also took aim at Holman’s handouts on the program’s scope and history. “Can you tell me what 25 double-sided color pages times 100 cost this committee?” Holman didn’t have that figure.

“Looking for consensus”

Industry advocates are expected to testify at the next meeting about their problems with the Air Toxics program. House Minority Leader Joe Hackney requested that environmental scientists be invited to testify next month, too.

Co-chairman Mitch Gillespie described the committee’s work as “fact-finding.”

“This committee will set the legislative agenda for the short session,” he said. “It would be our intent to have legislation in the short session that would be consensus from the department (DENR) and from the regulated community on some changes we can make to the air toxics program.”

Gillespie said he’ll sponsor that bill, which will be based on recommendations from DENR. But, he added, “I might actually make changes. I could make changes that the department doesn’t agree with. I could make changes that the regulated community doesn’t agree with.”

As for his incredulity about the amount of hazardous air pollution in NC, he said, “It was an eye-opener. I still want to see the follow-up data that they’re gonna send me. But 38 million pounds of air toxics in the air per year is a lot. It’s enough to be concerned about, and that’s why we have to go about any changes that we make, make sure that we find out all the details and facts.”

NC Sierra Club Lobbyist Will Morgan observed “a little bit of confusion” among committee members about the data presented and the differences between federal and state programs. 

“Hopefully, the follow-up presentations from DENR and some of the scientists that are going to come in are gonna clear up some of those discrepancies,” said Morgan, “and we’ll be able to get to the bottom of the facts of what the actual levels of air pollution are.”

“We hope the air toxics program stays in place in North Carolina,” Morgan added.

More recent EPA data released in 2010 puts the total hazardous air pollution released in North Carolina at just over 34 million pounds. 1.5 million pounds of that is classified as carcinogenic.

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