House panel guts air pollution rules

A GOP legislator rushes through an amendment sought by industry, stunning state regulators.

Staff WritersJune 15, 2011 

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CORRECTION

A story Wednesday about a House committee vote to eliminate a state program that enforces clean air regulations failed to attribute information about the companies that pushed for the repeal. That information as well as EPA data on those companies and background on when the regulations were originally enacted came from Rob Lamme, a lobbyist for the N.C. Coastal Federation, a conservation group.

****** At the urging of some of the state's largest polluters, a committee in the Republican-controlled state House voted Tuesday to eliminate the state program that monitors and enforces clean air regulations.

During an afternoon meeting of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican, introduced an amendment to eliminate the state's air toxics program.

The measure was added to Senate Bill 308, which would prohibit state agencies from enforcing regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by industry beyond federal regulations. In general, federal air quality rules are weaker than existing state regulations on pollution emitted from the stacks of coal-fired power plants and other industrial activities.

Before the surprise amendment Tuesday, the bill had languished in the Republican-controlled committee for three months.

McElraft's amendment was approved without any opportunity for public comment. Officials at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, were also caught by surprise by the amendment, copies of which had not been provided to them ahead of time.

Five of the state's largest emitters of hazardous and toxic pollutants, including Duke Power and steel manufacturer Nucor Corp., had urged Republican legislators in writing to repeal North Carolina's Air Toxic Regulations. These companies account for over half of the hazardous and toxic chemical released in North Carolina, according to a 2009 inventory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The amended bill will now head to a House vote before the end of the week, then return to the Senate.

McElraft said the changes bring North Carolina in line with neighboring states, that rely solely on the federal regulations.

"In order to be competitive with business with our bordering states we need to be doing what they are doing and that is allowing the federal government to do the regulation," she said.

Sheila Holman, director of the state's air quality division, said the federal regulations don't go far enough to protect the health of North Carolinians. The state's existing rules require the air leaving industrial plants and other facilities to meet clean air standards before they reach surrounding neighborhoods.

"The question is: Do we get a complete picture of the community risk?" Holman said of the federal standards.

Environmentalists were blunt in their assessment of the legislation.

"Our public health is at stake here, and we do not want to see this bill move forward," said Margaret Hartzell, who represents Environment North Carolina.

Among the pollutants that state officials say would not be regulated if the bill becomes law are hydrogen sulfide, nitric acid, sulfuric acid and ammonia.

Environment officials and environmentalists say they also are troubled by the speed with which such substantial rollbacks are occurring with little opportunity to study them. Holman said she had not seen the air toxics legislation until McElraft introduced it Tuesday afternoon.

"The biggest worry is that these bills and issues are moving so fast that the public doesn't have a chance to understand what's happening and respond," said David Knight, an assistant secretary for the department.

The companies requesting repeal of the air toxic regulations are Domtar, which operates a paper plant in Ply mouth; Duke Energy, which operates seven coal-fired power plants in Western North Carolina; Evergreen Packaging Group, which operates a paper plant in Canton; Nucor Corp., which operates a steel plant in Hertford County; and Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, which operates a phosphate facility near Aurora.

According to EPA's most recent Toxic Release Inventory, these companies collectively released 18,208,283 pounds of hazardous and toxic pollutants in 2009. The companies' toxic releases in 2009 included over a half-million (516,056) pounds of known carcinogens including lead, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, styrene, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and cobalt compounds. Some of these chemicals are also identified with causing mutations and birth defects.

Rules adopted in 1990

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission adopted the state's air toxic regulations in 1990 to protect the public from the harmful effects of hazardous and toxic air pollutants. The regulations were enacted during the administration of Gov. James Martin, a Republican.

The regulations define a "toxic air pollutant" to mean any "carcinogens, chronic toxicants, acute systemic toxicants, or acute irritants." The listed pollutants covered by the regulations are the most hazardous to public health, including PCBs; dioxins; asbestos; arsenic; heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury, and others; formaldehyde; cyanide and dozens of known carcinogens.

McElraft, who works as a sales representative for a microbiotics supply company and as a real-estate broker, said she did not think the new legislation would harm the state's air quality.

She said the state's standards were adopted because of a lack of federal standards in 1990. Now that there are newer federal standards, she said it's time to put to bed state regulations she characterized as "duplicative."

"I do believe that the EPA's covering all the bases," she said. "And if they are not, then shame on them."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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