Is North Carolina coming clean about the air it monitors?

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

How many air monitors does North Carolina operate?

It’s a pretty straightforward question, but the answer the state has provided has been anything but clear.

We asked about the monitors earlier this month in researching a July 2 editorial that questioned why the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources was cutting more than half the state’s air monitors after arguing one year ago against a bill that would do exactly that.

North Carolina, as of June 2014, was operating 132 air monitors across the state. (A few localities operate their own, additional monitors). Those N.C.-operated monitors range from “criteria” monitors required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to other devices, such as weather monitors, that the EPA doesn’t require.

In 2014, N.C. lawmakers filed a regulatory bill that called for DENR to eliminate all monitors the EPA didn’t mandate. DENR said then it was “baffled” at the request. The Observer’s editorial board criticized the bill. Eventually, the air monitor provision was removed.

But in the year since, DENR eliminated those monitors anyway. At least that’s what a spokesperson confirmed to us this month when we asked if the state was going from 132 to 62 air monitors.

Now DENR – specifically the N.C. Division of Air Quality – says that 62 is incorrect. The actual number is 96, which includes both EPA-mandated monitors and others. DENR also says that their spokesperson didn’t confirm the total of 62 to us. “A miscommunication,” they said.

But we’re not the only ones DENR told that to. When state lawmakers tried again this year to get DENR to eliminate air monitors not required by the EPA, lawmakers got a memo from DENR saying it already was satisfying that provision.

The memo said the state was now operating 74 criteria monitors and would be eliminating 12 more with the EPA’s permission. That would bring the number of monitors to 62, which is what DENR also told the editorial board.

If DENR is operating 96 monitors – still a significant drop from 132 – that would include almost three dozen monitors the EPA doesn’t require. That would mean DENR was less than truthful when it told lawmakers it was eliminating all non-mandated monitors.

We asked DENR officials about that discrepancy. Their response, in an op-ed we published Wednesday, did not directly answer that question.

Keep this in mind: North Carolina’s air quality has improved greatly over the last few decades. Our air quality effort, specifically the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, has served as a model for other states.

DENR argues now that the improvement has made air monitors less necessary. But DENR argued last year that they needed those 132 monitors as part of a robust network, especially with the EPA implementing tougher standards on sulfur dioxide. We agree.

Lawmakers, by the way, are still mulling that 2015 regulatory bill that includes the elimination of all non-mandated air monitors. That puts 34 of DENR’s total of 96 monitors in jeopardy.

DENR did tell the editorial board that it plans on 10 to 30 new monitors added to keep up with the new EPA sulfur dioxide standards.

How many will that leave the state operating? We’re not holding our breath on a clear answer.

Peter St. Onge