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Wishing our way to cleaner air

Ignorance is bliss, until you choke on it.

In 2012, North Carolina’s legislature was the butt of jokes nationally as it considered legislation that would have, essentially, outlawed the rising of the oceans. The proposal dictated in effect that the sea level would rise no more than 8 inches this century. Legislators ended up approving a less controversial version of the bill.

Now the honorables in Raleigh are going down a similar path, again hoping that if they cover their eyes and ears they can make unpleasant things – like polluted air – go away.

Tucked inside a 65-page bill called the Regulatory Reform Act (Senate Bill 734) is one sentence that requires the state to eliminate the majority of its 132 air-quality monitors. The provision requires the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, run by Secretary John Skvarla, to remove any monitors that are not explicitly required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. That, advocates say, would mean getting rid of 80 percent of the monitors in some parts of the state, such as western North Carolina.

A DENR spokesman says the department is “baffled” by the legislation.

The monitors provide valuable data about a region’s air quality and help regulators predict where problems will worsen. And the legislature’s move comes just as the EPA announces stricter emissions standards, precisely the wrong time to do it. The EPA’s new standards suggest states might need more air-quality monitoring, not less. Do legislators think that the state can avoid knowing it is out of compliance on air quality by getting rid of the monitors that measure it?

Together, the monitors give the state a more complete picture of what’s happening to air quality. Removing them, and losing the information they provide, can only threaten the state’s air. Take a monitor in Sanford, for example. It’s designed to provide a baseline of air quality and measure any changes once fracking begins in Lee County. It – and its revealing data – could go away under this legislation.

The EPA funds most of the monitors, even those it doesn’t require, so getting rid of them would save the state little.

It’s not clear who’s driving the proposal. None of the three primary sponsors of the wide-ranging bill returned the Observer editorial board’s calls on Friday. As they say, success has many fathers while failure is an orphan.

North Carolina has been a pioneer in air-quality efforts. Its Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002 was a model for other states. That approach has helped attract business, improved the economy and cleaned the environment. The provision in S 734 does just the opposite. It, not the monitors, is what should be removed.

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