Environmentalists say they will fight rule changes they believe could further weaken North Carolinas protection against industrial emissions of toxic air pollutants.
The North Carolina legislature this year exempted pollution sources from state oversight if they are also covered by federal rules and dont pose an unacceptable risk to human health.
Legislators also ordered the N.C. Division of Air Quality to look for further changes to the 20-year-old program that would reduce unnecessary regulatory burden on industries and make more efficient use of state resources.
About 30 percent of the states 2,700 permitted air emission sources have to meet state limits on 97 pollutants, including 21 that dont fall under federal rules.
Federal rules prescribe pollution controls for industries by category. The state program, created before the federal rules were adopted, makes facilities show that their emissions wont harm neighbors health.
North Carolinas toxic air emissions dropped 62 percent between 1998 and 2011 as federal standards were enacted. North Carolina industries released 24 million pounds in 2011, according to federal data, ranking the state 12th-highest for those releases.
The legislation passed in June shifted much of the burden for proving emissions arent harmful from industries to the state. But it retains the states ability to demand full analysis when it appears emissions might rise above health-based limits.
The bottom line is we will not be issuing a permit that would be an unacceptable risk, said Michael Abraczinskas, deputy director of the state air-quality division.
As weve done a review of rules we did a few things that would lead to clarification, lead to efficiencies and let us focus our resources on where theres an issue.
The Southern Environmental Law Center takes a dimmer view of the changes.
What the General Assembly did was really a travesty, said senior attorney John Suttles. Now the triage is to try to limit the damage the General Assembly did.
The state air-quality division, after meeting with industry and advocacy groups, recommended six rule changes and will start crafting them in January.
Among the recommendations are setting looser screening thresholds for facilities that release pollutants directly upward, a change that would apply to about one-third of all facilities. Exempting small, gas-fired boilers, and emergency engines, would each apply to about 150 facilities.
The state Manufacturers and Chemical Industry Council, which represents North Carolinas largest industries, endorsed the proposals. The council recommended that air-quality officials develop a tool to quickly indicate whether new facilities would need extensive state review.
It was taking so long to get to a decision point, other states were kicking our butts, president Preston Howard said. It will make us more competitive with other states on air toxics.
Mecklenburg has leeway
The Southern Environmental Law Center says the rule changes need many refinements, including a definition of unacceptable risks. It opposes exempting whole categories of industries without proving theyre harmless.
The rules, the center says, also need to address air emissions that can become hazardous in other ways. Mercury released into the air by power plants often falls into lakes and rivers, where it is transformed into more toxic methylmercury, which can contaminate fish.
The state program can do a number of things the federal program was not designed to do and has not done, Suttles said, such as evaluating the impacts of clusters of industries instead of individually. Industries have really pressured (state regulators) to undermine some of the important provisions of the law.
Mecklenburg County, which operates its own air-quality agency, will be bound by the state rule changes but has some leeway to do things its own way. In written comments to the air-quality agency, the county called the state program a critical part of the protection of public health.
If we have a situation where theres reason to believe there is a toxic exposure, we have the right to explore it, said air-quality director Don Willard. In 2010, with state approval, the county set an accelerated timeline for a Matthews medical waste incinerator to meet stricter air standards.
Mecklenburg also asks small and mid-sized businesses, as part of an inventory of toxic emissions done every three years, to voluntarily show that their emissions meet state limits. Such demonstrations are normally required only when facilities undergo modifications or change their processes.
Were interested in not having any toxics issues in Mecklenburg County, Willard said.