MAHA Speaks to State Officials Re: Amendments to AQ Rules

Nov 4, 2015

About 1,400 sources of air pollution in North Carolina will no longer be required to obtain air permits, if a new proposal from state officials is granted. Clean Air Carolina’s Manager of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, Laura Wenzel, attended a hearing in Raleigh on November 4, 2015 and presented the following comments to the NC Environmental Management Commission Air Quality Committee:

Statement to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission Air Quality Committee regarding Proposed amendments to air quality rules, 15A NCAC 02Q.0102 and 15A NCAC 02Q .0318

My name is Laura Wenzel. I am manager of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, a statewide network of approximately 500 medical and health professionals concerned about the impacts of air pollution on public health.

We are troubled by the potential for adverse health effects that may occur as a result of removing the air permit requirement for small facilities. Many toxic air pollutants are dangerous at relatively small total quantities or concentrations, so a 5 ton threshold for those pollutants is not inherently protective of public health.

Long-term exposure to air toxics can have a cumulative effect, and even low levels can threaten the health of vulnerable people. Vulnerable people include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with respiratory diseases or other chronic illnesses, such as compromised immune systems, people whose work exposes them to certain chemicals on a regular basis, and people living in poverty.

Should this rule be approved, we urge that it would require all permit waiver reviews to include a close look at the communities in which these facilities are located. This includes considering the demographic and economic composition of nearby neighborhoods and the facilities’ proximity to schools, parks, daycare facilities, and long-term care facilities, as well as their proximity to other sources of pollutants, such as heavily trafficked roads, warehouse facilities, landfills, and permitted facilities. We also urge that health departments in the counties where permits may be waived remain apprised about non-permitted facilities so that they can monitor changes in the health of residents in surrounding neighborhoods and inform the public about potential health threats.

If the final rule indeed retains the complex monitoring system necessary to protect public health, we question whether removing the permit requirement will achieve the financial savings that the Department is projecting. Improved cost savings are more likely to be achieved through the prevention of threats to public health by maintaining the current permitting standards.

The following was published on on Sept. 25, 2015

DENR Requests Exemptions for Smaller-Scale Air Polluters
By Gabe Rivin

North Carolina is home to some 2,500 permitted sources of air pollution, ranging from power plants to peanut roasters to lumber mills.

These facilities currently operate with air permits, legal documents that require the facilities to report their pollution to the state. But under a new proposal from state environment officials, more than 1,400 of these facilities would no longer have to obtain those air permits.

The proposal, from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, would exempt facilities deemed to be low-level polluters. To qualify, these facilities could emit no more than 10,000 pounds per year of a single pollutant or 50,000 pounds of a combination of pollutants before requiring a permit.

Facilities operating at about this level include concrete plants, rock quarries and furniture and auto body shops, among numerous others, according to Tom Mather, a spokesman for DENR’s Division of Air Quality.

The proposal could be significant because industrial air pollutants can cause immediate and long-term harm to people’s health. Among the pollutants addressed in air permits are nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of smog, a respiratory threat; volatile organic compounds, which can be carcinogenic; and sulfur dioxides, which react in the atmosphere to form fine particles that can damage humans’ lungs.

DENR, in documents presented earlier this month to the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, said the proposal would affect only a small proportion of the state’s total air pollution. The potentially affected facilities make up, in total, less than 1 percent of these pollutants from stationary sources, while the polluters account for more than half of the state’s permits.

DENR staff have had to manage the paperwork for these permits while operating with fewer funds in recent years, Mather said.

“Our revenues have been declining pretty much across the board,” he said.

The loss of funds stems in part from lower statewide gas-tax revenues and declines in the power industry’s air pollution and consequent pollution fees, Mather said.

The proposal is “all part of our efforts to make our organization more efficient, given the changes in both the federal requirements that we have to enforce and the revenues we have coming in from different sources,” he said.

DENR says its proposal would free up staff to focus on larger, more significant sources of air pollution. It also estimates the proposal would save $768,225 in permit fees for businesses. DENR’s Division of Air Quality would also lose an estimated $280,425 from these fees, though DENR officials say it will no longer face the administrative costs from managing the permits.

In an apparent affirmation of the proposal, the Environmental Management Commission, which writes state regulations, on Sept. 10 agreed to go forward with a public hearing on the proposal, a required step before the EMC can change state rules.

Concerns about monitoring

Environmentalists and public health advocates criticized the proposal, saying it would harm the state’s ability to monitor pollution.

For facilities without permits, “there can be no inspection process; there’s no secondary follow up for what they say they’re doing in their actual emissions,” said Terry Lansdell, the program director at Clean Air Carolina. “That’s a big red flag for me.”

Lansdell added that, despite their small contribution to overall state pollution, these facilities tend to be located in densely populated areas.

“These small sources are not isolated sources in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “They might be the paint and body shop on the corner.”

Map of Small Polluters

Myra Blake, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the proposal “does seem unwise” given that the General Assembly is considering a statewide reduction in air-quality monitors.

But DENR’s Mather said that with their small level of air pollution, the affected facilities don’t warrant a major concern about the public’s health. He also said that state and federal rules will still apply to facilities, even if they don’t have permits.

Mather did acknowledge though that North Carolina uses air permits to ensure facilities follow state rules, since permits require facilities to monitor and report their emissions to the state.

But if a facility is operating without a permit, the responsibility will likely fall on residents to complain about increases in air pollution, Mather said.

Changing the way it counts pollution

Under current state rules, small facilities only require air permits if they emit more than 10,000 pounds of a single pollutant per year, the same threshold included in DENR’s proposal. But under the proposal, facilities could also emit up to 50,000 combined pounds of different pollutants each year before requiring a permit.

In addition to this new combined threshold, DENR is asking permission to use actual data when deciding whether a permit is necessary. Currently, when a business applies for a permit DENR estimates pollution by using models.

But the current models exaggerate pollution, Mather said, since they assume that facilities operate all day, throughout the year.

As for facilities that haven’t yet been built, DENR would still have to estimate air pollution. It would base its permit requirements on these projections.

But DENR would use a new method, one that would consider the actual operating hours of a facility, Mather said.