Environmentalists say they will fight rule changes they believe could further weaken North Carolina’s protection against industrial emissions of toxic air pollutants.
The North Carolina legislature this year exempted pollution sources from state oversight if they are also covered by federal rules and don’t pose an “unacceptable risk” to human health.
Legislators also ordered the N.C. Division of Air Quality to look for further changes to the 20-year-old program that would “reduce unnecessary regulatory burden” on industries and make more efficient use of state resources.
About 30 percent of the state’s 2,700 permitted air emission sources have to meet state limits on 97 pollutants, including 21 that don’t fall under federal rules.
Federal rules prescribe pollution controls for industries by category. The state program, created before the federal rules were adopted, makes facilities show that their emissions won’t harm neighbors’ health.
North Carolina’s toxic air emissions dropped 62 percent between 1998 and 2011 as federal standards were enacted. North Carolina industries released 24 million pounds in 2011, according to federal data, ranking the state 12th-highest for those releases.
The legislation passed in June shifted much of the burden for proving emissions aren’t harmful from industries to the state. But it retains the state’s ability to demand full analysis when it appears emissions might rise above health-based limits. “The bottom line is we will not be issuing a permit that would be an unacceptable risk,” said Michael Abraczinskas, deputy director of the state air-quality division.
The Southern Environmental Law Center takes a dimmer view of the changes. “What the General Assembly did was really a travesty,” said senior attorney John Suttles. “Now the triage is to try to limit the damage the General Assembly did.”
The state air-quality division, after meeting with industry and advocacy groups, recommended six rule changes and will start crafting them in January.
Among the recommendations are setting looser screening thresholds for facilities that release pollutants directly upward, a change that would apply to about one-third of all facilities.
The state Manufacturers and Chemical Industry Council, which represents North Carolina’s largest industries, endorsed the proposals.
The Southern Environmental Law Center says the rule changes need many refinements, including a definition of “unacceptable risks.” It opposes exempting categories of industries without proving they’re harmless.
The rules, the center says, also need to address air emissions that can become hazardous in other ways. Mercury released into the air by power plants often falls into lakes and rivers, where it is transformed into more toxic methylmercury, which can contaminate fish.