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Groups Protest Proposed Air Toxins Change

Coal fired power plant
eutrophication&hypoxia via Flickr, Creative Commons

A bill passed in the General Assembly last year could ease environmental restrictions on some industries including paper mills and power plants that are sources of air pollution.

If approved by state agencies, the measure would allow those industries to comply only with federal regulations and bypass separate state air toxins rules created in 1989. Environmental and community groups hope to stop the plan from going forward.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources held a public hearing yesterday on proposed changes to what are called the state’s air toxics rules. One of the first people to get up and speak was a sprightly grey-haired woman:

"My name’s Jean Bryson, I live in Sampson County, I’m a retired farmer, and I still sell food wholesale."

Bryson says she’s concerned that easing some air toxins regulations could make one of the problems she faces even worse.

"There’s too much lead in many soils in Sampson County that you can’t grow carrots for baby food. And this lead got in the soil about 1950 so that’s 63 years ago. I asked a scientist from state college how long would it be before it would probably be all right to grow carrots for baby food. Their answer was I can’t exactly tell you," says Bryson.

Farmers like Bryson are keenly aware that being too close to factories or power plants can damage their land and reduce their profits. And public health officials have always warned that high concentrations of toxins in the air and the soil can cause health problems.

The measure that would allow some plants to bypass state regulations was lobbied for by a number of big companies, including Duke Energy and Nucor. Beverly Kerr is an Alamance County resident who works for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

"I also have heard that polluters are now considered valued customers, and public health concerns are taking a back seat in North Carolina. I’m disappointed. I’m embarrassed about this and maybe you are too," says Kerr.

But officials in DENR downplay the risks of the proposed change.  Federal regulations measure around 150 toxins directly emitted into the air right from the source, from the very smokestack. The state program measures about a hundred toxins in the air in general areas of concern that may include factories and power plants. The state and federal rules aren’t directly comparable- they’re like apples and oranges.

"Some of the people in business and industry felt like these two sets of rules were burdensome for businesses to try to comply with the different rules since they are quite a bit different," says Tom Mather,  a spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "So we did a study looking at it. And we found that in almost every case, if a company met the federal rules, that they would also meet the state rules."

A spokeswoman for Duke Energy, Erin Culbert, says the company’s power plants in North Carolina already meet both standards. But she points out the proposed rule change has a safeguard in place. That could include a situation in which three power plants were in close proximity, each meeting the federal standards. The power plants would each comply with federal regulations but altogether could seriously pollute nearby communities.

"There may be a question of whether the ambient air around those facilities is still protected because you’ve got three plants in close proximity," says  Culbert. "If that were the case, then the director would still have the ability to trigger an assessment to ensure that those health-based standards are met."

But environmentalists believe that’s not enough, especially in areas near low-income and minority communities that are often overlooked. They say North Carolina’s air toxics program is specifically designed to measure the health effects caused by the unique mix of industries that have chosen to locate here. They also feel DENR’s Division of Air Quality isn’t giving the issue enough time. Myra Blake is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center:

"With other facilities and permits that are being issued, the division will often have multiple meetings across the state at different times to allow as many voices as possible to be heard to take account of those public comments. This is a short meeting in Raleigh at three o' clock in the middle of the workday," says Blake.

DENR spokesman Tom Mather says department finances are limited and don’t always allow for multiple public hearings. And he says hearings held on the road don’t always attract enough people. DENR is accepting written comments on the plan through October 14th. After that, it will go before the State Management Commission.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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