NC DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart – our state’s top environmental cop – raised a few eyebrows recently when he sent out an invitation to a party this week at his agency.
Come celebrate North Carolina’s clean air, the secretary’s invite gushed, and the Department of Environmental Quality staff who accomplished this great achievement.
To be clear, no one disputes that North Carolina’s air is a lot cleaner than it was a few years ago. In 1999, North Carolina had 111 orange or red warnings for “bad air days.”
Last year there was none.
Nor does anyone begrudge taking time to thank DEQ professionals for their hard work on the often unseen and thankless task of enforcing the laws that keep us all healthy and our air clean. Clean air saves lives, because air pollution leads to higher death rates from diseases like pneumonia, asthma and emphysema.
What surprised so many people about the invitation was that it came from a secretary (and a department and an administration) that has done so much in recent months to thwart efforts to continue our progress on air quality.
After all, this is the same secretary who has opposed the air pollution reduction goals under the new federal Clean Power Plan – even though van der Vaart has stated publicly that North Carolina would not have any trouble meeting the plan’s carbon reduction goals.
And while other states are moving forward on plans to comply with the new standards, van der Vaart rejected a written request of 57 local elected officials who asked him to lead the state in a stakeholder process to implement the rules in a way that works for North Carolina and its economy.
What’s more, van der Vaart has recently proposed allowing a large number of smaller air pollution emitters to simply register with the department – rather than requiring them to apply for permits, which comes with a higher degree of review.
That’s why so many of us concerned about air quality in North Carolina found the secretary’s party invitation a bit tone-deaf.
I’m from Western North Carolinian, and our community – including residents, businesses and public health officials and doctors and parents and many others – sounded the alarm more than a decade ago and took the lead in tackling North Carolina’s air pollution problems. Their efforts started in Western North Carolina and spread across the state until the General Assembly approved the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002.
Back then – and just like now – opponents of cleaning up our air predicted that (forgive the pun) the sky would fall on our economy if we approved higher standards to protect public health.
Unfortunately, van der Vaart seems to be echoing those same, false assertions now, as we decide as a state how to comply with the new federal air protection rules.
Of course, the economy didn’t falter after the Clean Smokestacks Act was approved. Just the opposite. The air got cleaner, children and the elderly stayed healthier, and, in my part of the state, the trees stopped dying. Now tourism is soaring. In 2014, Asheville broke new records for both revenues generated from tourism and visits with more than 10 million people traveling to the area to enjoy our clean mountain air.
So when van der Vaart celebrated our clean air, here’s hoping he remembered to thank the citizens and policymakers of North Carolina who made that achievement possible – and that he starts listening to those who want to continue that progress today.
Julie Mayfield is co-director of MountainTrue, a conservation organization focused on 23 Western North Carolina counties.