There is one square mile in East Central Durham where concrete is made, bodies are cremated, wooden cabinets are manufactured and chemicals are shipped.
These blocks of South Driver Street, South Plum Street and East Pettigrew Street are also home to more than 2,500 people, most of them low-income households and minorities.
New rules approved last month by the Environmental Management Commission would no longer require about 1,000 facilities in North Carolina that emit low levels of pollutants to secure an air permit from the state’s Division of Air Quality.
“From our experience, and looking at data from the small facilities, these don’t create environmental issues,” said Sheila Holman, director of the state Division of Air Quality.
She added that exempt facilities will still be inspected, but every two years instead of annually.
But environmental groups are concerned about the public health impacts, especially asthma, of these low-level emitters, particularly when they are clustered.
“These smaller sources can be in neighborhoods, not industrial parks,” says Therese Vick, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “We will look at nearby facilities to ensure in combination there are no effects,”
If a new facility files for a permit in the area, the agency will also look for any potential cumulative effects, she said.
Of the 14 low-level emitters in Durham, half are in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods.
Ready Mixed Concrete Company, Garland Woodcraft and Quality Cremation — all within a half-mile of one another — are three of the businesses that would be exempt under the new rules.
According to census data from the Durham Neighborhood Compass, about 70 percent of those tract’s 1,280 residents are African-American, with median household incomes of $20,000 to $23,000 a year.
Chandler Concrete and Thomas Concrete, which are less than a half-mile from each other, also in low-income, minority neighborhoods in East Durham, would be exempt.
State environmental regulators say the new rules would free up regulators to focus on larger facilities, such as Brenntag in East Durham, that would still need an air permit to operate.
However, the exempt facilities can emit up to 10 tons of a combination of hazardous and criteria pollutants without a state air permit.
Ozone, carbon monoxide, lead and particulate matter are examples of criteria pollutants.
The EPA has compiled a list of 187 hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, proven to cause cancer in humans, and naphthalene, a possible carcinogen.
Together, three low-level polluters on South Driver and South Plum streets emit a total 4.5 tons of pollutants into the air each year, according to state data.
These pollutants include nitrogen oxide, which even in short-term exposures, according to the EPA, can cause “adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma.”
Pollution isn’t the only cause of asthma, but it can exacerbate other environmental triggers.
Durham ranks 11th among North Carolina’s 100 counties in hospitalizations for childhood asthma, according to 2014 state health data.
In 2011, a Duke University Health System mapping project showed a higher concentration of asthmatics and poorly controlled asthma in low socioeconomic areas. And more than half of all Duke University Health System patients ages 12 and older with asthma were African-American. Five percent were Latino, and 36.5 percent white.
According to Durham County’s 2014 Community Health Survey, asthma disproportionately affects low-income people and minorities. African-Americans are three times more likely to require hospitalization and die as a consequence of asthma than whites.
“The cumulative impacts remain a focal point for us,” said Jamie Cole, policy advocate for the N.C. Conservation Network. The group wrote a letter to the EMC on behalf of several environmental groups opposing the rules.
Holman said based on a lack of complaints from communities about public health effects, there are not major concerns about these low-level facilities.
However, Cole said the complaint process is unclear. “What’s the mechanism? I don’t know how effective this is for the community.”
Many community members, Cole said, do not know they can complain or challenge a permit.
“I want to emphasize this relieves an administrative burden, not a regulatory burden,” Holman said. “We will do everything to ensure compliance.”
However, a written compliance assurance plan, in the works since last summer, has yet to be released. It is expected to be issued when the legislature takes up the rules in May.
Harry Royster has operated Quality Cremation for 28 years. He said the required permitting paperwork “didn’t take a lot of time, but it wasn’t easy because you had to do it every year.”
His facility was inspected every two or three years, he said, without any advance notice.
“I want them to come and inspect,” Royster said.
The EPA will also have to approve the state’s implementation plan of the rules. All facilities, regardless of emissions levels, still have to comply with federal and state emissions rules. That includes sending information to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, although that data is self-reported by the facility itself.
The Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, is expected to discuss the issue at its work session Wednesday night. An advisory group, the EAB could draft a resolution to forward to City Council asking it to lobby local lawmakers to oppose the rules.