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Mecklenburg’s air quality director is retiring

By Bruce Henderson
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

When Don Willard joined Mecklenburg County in 1974, fresh out of N.C. State University with a biology degree, the nation’s first laws protecting water and air also were brand new.

“It was the beginning of the environmental movement,” he said. “I don’t think I had even heard the word ‘environment’ in college.”

Mecklenburg was dotted with huge tire dumps and only the beginnings of managed landfills, which were on Willard’s beat as a county sanitarian. Problems the new Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act would address were just as obvious – “We worried about dead stuff floating in creeks and smoke from smokestacks,” he said.

Fast-forward to the present as Willard, 62, prepares to retire this month as Mecklenburg’s air quality director.

Air quality has improved since state and federal mandates reduced industry and vehicle emissions. Fish are reclaiming urban streams. Parks cover old dumps.

The county’s environmental albatross now is an irritating but invisible gas – ground-level ozone, or smog.

Mecklenburg has twice met federal smog standards as its air improved. But as science finds new evidence that even low levels can be harmful, the standards grow steadily more stringent. Complying with them will only get harder.

Inability to meet a tougher standard could have serious effects on small businesses, which would face new emission and reporting standards, and on individuals.

“The Clean Air Act is a public health measure, but with ambient air quality so good it becomes mostly an economic question,” Willard said.

Mecklenburg is one of three North Carolina counties with its own air quality agency. It has 25 employees and a $2.2 million annual budget, with about half the money coming from permit fees and one-quarter each from federal and state sources.

Leslie Rhodes, a program manager, will replace Willard as director.

Under Willard since 2002, the agency formed a mobile-source unit on pollution from motor vehicles. It developed a grants program to replace old, dirty diesel engines, ran public-awareness campaigns on smog, and oversaw the “Breathe” initiative to improve local air quality.

Cars and trucks are major contributors to smog, but it’s been a tough sell to persuade commuters to carpool, bike or take buses more often. “You’re not going to get people to do what you want them to do just because they should,” Willard said.

With county support, the agency also won state approval for a tighter leash on a Matthews medical waste incinerator, the source of complaints for years, that shut down in 2011.

“Don’s long-term commitment to improving air quality has been a valuable asset to our community as we’ve experienced major population growth and development over the last four decades,” said June Blotnick, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Air Carolina.

“I have immense respect for him and am grateful for the strong partnership we’ve developed with Mecklenburg County Air Quality under his leadership.”

Willard’s fingerprints go beyond the air program.

As a longtime deputy director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, he was involved in an agreement allowing the local agency to apply state water-quality rules and launched an initiative to protect county streams from development-related pollution.

He represented the county in an agreement resolving groundwater contamination from the Paw Creek gasoline “tank farm” and edited the first seven of Mecklenburg’s biennial “State of the Environment” reports.

With once-looming pollution targets diminished, Willard said “it’s definitely harder to find big stuff to do.”

So he heads to a new life of more tennis and fewer 7 a.m. meetings.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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