Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency Enforcement and Monitoring Supervisor Kevin Lance displays recent ozone levels for Buncombe County on a monitor at the Bent Creek ozone monitoring facility July 25. The facility transmits information to the agency every hour. Hank Shell/Carolina Public Press

From power plants to paper mills, quarries to crematoriums – every year companies across North Carolina pump millions of pounds of chemicals and particulates into the atmosphere.

And no matter where you are in North Carolina, one thing remains constant – you’ve got to pay to pollute.

Most air polluters in the state pay for their emissions with permits, and sometimes fines, from the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources Division of Air Quality.

But there are three places in the state where air quality isn’t regulated from agency headquarters in Raleigh, and one of those places is Buncombe County.

In Buncombe County, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency monitors air quality and enforces state and federal air quality standards. The other two local regulating agencies in North Carolina are in Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties.

Ashley Featherstone, engineering supervisor for WNCRAQA, said the Buncombe County agency actually predates the state Division of Air Quality and federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The WNCRAQA was started as a smoke abatement agency in the 1940s to regulate smoke from coal-fired boilers in the area, Featherstone said. At that time, four counties were involved in the agency — Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Transylvania.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 allowed local governments to establish their own air quality programs, which Featherstone said resulted in the formation of the WNCRAQA.

The agency downsized to two counties — Buncombe and Haywood — in 1970 before Haywood ultimately left the agency in 1999.

Today, the agency is governed by a five-member board with three appointees from Buncombe County and two from the City of Asheville, although the agency operates independently of both governments. Buncombe County government administers the agency’s personnel policy.

Despite its small size and limited resources in comparison to statewide agencies, Kevin Lance, enforcement and monitoring supervisor, said he believes the WNCRAQA’s size is an advantage.

“I think it allows us to be better at enforcement and, you know, better at a lot of things,” he said.

The agency issues permits for 70 facilities in Buncombe County, and the fees for those permits are its primary source of funding, Featherstone said. It also receives an EPA STAR grant and some funding from North Carolina’s gas tax.

The WNCRAQA’s operating budget for the current fiscal year is $1,009,526, Featherstone said, adding that the budget includes $72,000 for the one-time purchase of new ozone detection equipment. She said the agency’s annual budget must be approved by its board and then by Buncombe County.

The WNCRAQA uses its funds to monitor air quality in the county, focusing primarily on ozone and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, also known as PM2.5. Although ozone hazards are more well-known, particulate matter can have serious health effects due to its ability to lodge deeply into the lungs, according to the EPA.

The ozone monitoring station at Bent Creek is the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency’s only ozone monitor. The tall slender pipe is the air intake for the site’s monitoring equipment. Hank Shell/Carolina Public Press

The agency monitors ozone levels from a monitoring station at Bent Creek Experimental Forest on Brevard Road and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns from monitoring equipment on top of the Buncombe County Board of Education building.

Lance said WNCRAQA and the state poll these monitoring sites every hour. The air-quality information also is available at the government-backed AirCompare website.

The agency also conducts inspections on each of the facilities in Buncombe County that it permits. Title V facilities – the largest polluters – are inspected yearly to ensure compliance, Featherstone said. Title V references Title V of the federal Clean Air Act.  The next largest polluters, designated as “synthetic minor,” also are inspected yearly. Small facilities are inspected every other year, Featherstone said.

Based on compliance with permits and air quality standards, Featherstone said the agency also has both civil and criminal enforcement authority.

Most of the violations the agency deals with are due to clerical errors like record-keeping and reporting, Featherstone said. Criminal enforcement is much more infrequent.

“It’s very hard to do a criminal case because you have to prove intent,” Featherstone said.

So far this year, the agency has issued six notices of violations, mostly for late reports or failure to conduct audits, which Featherstone said is pretty typical. “That’s the most common type of violation that we have,” she said.

Overall, Lance said he thinks a hardy sense of stewardship in the area is what has kept the agency successful for so many years.

“I think this is a good area to protect,” he said. “I think we have some good input in this area, and I think that’s why we stayed around.”

Agency hosting free gas can exchange

The Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency will hold a free gas can exchange program in conjunction with the Buncombe County Solid Waste Department at the Buncombe County Landfill from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Aug. 3 and 10. The WNCRAQA will replace old gas cans with new, environmentally-friendly cans. The project is part of an effort to reduce emissions by American Suzuki Motor Corp. and the EPA. Visit WNCRAQA’s website for more information.

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Hank Shell is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at shelljh@email.appstate.edu.

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