An about-face on air quality

The Observer editorial board

Air pollution like this in Charlotte in 2002 helped prompt North Carolina to become a model in air quality legislation.
Air pollution like this in Charlotte in 2002 helped prompt North Carolina to become a model in air quality legislation. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

One year ago, inside a 65-page environmental bill, Republicans in Raleigh crafted a single sentence designed to cripple the state’s air quality monitoring network.

The provision, which was part of the 2014 Regulatory Reform Act, required the removal of any N.C. ambient air quality monitors not required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Doing so would have eliminated more than half of the 132 state-run air quality monitors.

The proposal brought a strong gust of statewide ridicule. In this space, we speculated that Republicans were “hoping that if they cover their eyes and ears they can make unpleasant things – like polluted air – go away.” Even the state’s own Department of Environment and Natural Resources was “baffled” as to why state lawmakers wanted to remove the monitors.

Republicans were ultimately chastened. The provision was pulled.

Get ready to choke again.

This week, a new “Regulatory Reform Act” surfaced in the N.C. Senate, which passed it Wednesday. Tucked in the 54-page bill is the same sentence that appeared a year ago: “The Department of Environment and Natural Resources shall request the removal of any ambient air monitors not required by applicable federal laws and regulations.”

Except this time, DENR isn’t objecting. Why? Because in the past year, the agency quietly has done what it argued against – cutting dozens of air quality monitors.

As of this week, DENR is operating only 74 monitors across the state. The agency also is planning to ask the EPA to eliminate 12 more monitors as part of its proposed 2016 network plan. That will bring the total down from 132 to 62, a spokesperson confirmed to the editorial board Wednesday.

“DENR is already doing what is mandated (in the 2015 bill),” the agency said in a note to senators this week.

The reason for the cuts? “Air quality has improved in NC so much over the last decade that these monitors are no longer needed and there will be no adverse health effects,” DENR said in its note. A spokesperson reiterated that to the editorial board.

The same was true, however, about our air quality a year ago. But then, DENR spokesman Tom Mather made a strong case for keeping the monitors to the Raleigh News & Observer.

DENR also cited the need this week to “reallocate resources” to satisfy upcoming federal standards on sulfur dioxide. But DENR has known about those impending standards for years, including when it argued for keeping its air monitors last year. In fact, Mather made the case a year ago that with the Environmental Protection Agency getting tougher, it might not be the right move to dismantle a robust monitoring network.

That’s why Mather said then he was “baffled” legislators thought the monitors needed to go.

DENR is right, however, about the improvement in our state’s air quality. There’s at least one reason for that good news: North Carolina has been a pioneer in air-quality efforts, with its Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002 serving as a model for many states.

Now we’re moving in the opposite direction. This year’s Regulatory Reform Act is another wholesale weakening of environmental rules. From granting legal immunity to polluters who perform environmental self-audits, to eliminating regulations about idling heavy-duty vehicles, the bill lives up to its intention of being business friendly. But it does so at the cost of protecting the resources that help our state attract people and business.

To be sure, DENR isn’t happy about some of the 2015 Regulatory Reform Act. Its 12-page note spelled out several concerns with the legislation. Of course, DENR also was upset about the potential loss of air quality monitors a year ago.

All of which makes us wonder if DENR might be less concerned about protecting the environment than it is about protecting its turf.

Consider us baffled.