News: CJ Exclusives

City Grapples With Air-Quality Issues

Local business groups resist new regulations, promote voluntary response to tightened standard

Charlotte’s air pollution “crisis” raises a subtle question—what is accomplished by coming up with a creative, market-based solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist?

The good news here is that Charlotte’s business community seems likely to retain some control over its own destiny as the city attempts to avoid running afoul of federal clean air regulations.

The bad news is that the whole “crisis” is the result of the federal Environmental Protection Agency declaring that Charlotte continues to miss its target for ground-level ozone.

The city must be in compliance by 2010 or face the potential loss of federal highway dollars…or perhaps the threat of double-secret probation. Local sources such as environmental lawyer Benne Hutson admit that it’s hard to predict what federal officials will do, especially as the rules keep changing.

Still, the alternative to doing nothing would have been unthinkable — a mandatory, locally enforced program that would have forced any business with at least 20 employees to create and live by an emissions reduction plan for days in which ground-level ozone exceeds EPA standards.

Ozone is a gas composed of three oxygen atoms to the molecule. The oxygen we breathe has molecules of two oxygen atoms. Ozone is considered the main component in what’s commonly called “smog,” and can be a respiratory irritant in high concentrations.

Under the plan first put forward by county air authorities, ozone-cutting options available to Charlotte businesses mainly involved reducing the amount of morning rush-hour traffic. For example, employees might report late to work or telecommute.

For a small business that needs all 20 of its employees on the job, smoggy day or not, this could be a recipe for lost profits.

The resulting uproar was predictable, especially as the county initially broached the plan to business leaders in March last year in the expectation they could have public hearings as early as May. Ultimately, a heavily attended public hearing was conducted in September.

Badly in need of a compromise position, the Mecklenburg County commissioners voted to postpone any action on the mandatory program — with the catch that the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce would take the lead devising a voluntary program that would be acceptable to the business community.

“The problem exists in reality, because the EPA says we’re not in compliance. So we have to address the issue. The business community can’t afford to sit idly by and let federal highway money or other money be in jeopardy because we took no action,” said John Brown, the Chamber’s vice president for public policy.

Brown said the Chamber is preparing a grant proposal to get about $2.8 million a year of federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding through Raleigh. The money normally goes to highway construction projects, such as intersection improvements.

Hutson said that funding a voluntary emissions reduction plan will be a somewhat unusual use for CMAQ money, but should still fall well within what federal officials consider acceptable. Naturally, there will be other competing grant proposals from the Greater Charlotte area, but Hutson said he thinks the program stands a good chance.

Hutson explained that a voluntary program depends on persuading business owners that they can cut their emissions in such a way that they will also end up more efficient in the bargain. Atlanta and Miami have operated such programs successfully.

Brown said that the mandatory plan floated by the county had a basic flaw in that it was based on crisis management. Businesses would be warned by late afternoon that there was an air quality threat for the next morning. They would then have to put their plans into action, opening later or whatever.

The Chamber’s plan will be based on the assumption that businesses want something that they can live with year-round, rather than responding to emergencies, Brown said.

Mecklenburg County Air Quality, the local regulatory agency that implements the dictates of the EPA, has agreed to put its mandatory program on hold and cooperate with the Chamber.

Don Willard, director of MCAQ, said the EPA is mainly concerned with two types of pollution, particulate matter and ground-level ozone. Charlotte-Mecklenburg meets the EPA standard for particulate matter, but barely. Ozone, or smog, has been a more consistent problem, with the EPA maintaining that Charlotte has historically run about 15 percent over par for this type of pollution.

According to the latest environmental wisdom from the EPA and other authorities, whether ozone is good depends on where it is located. The much-publicized and little-understood ozone layer in the earth’s stratosphere is a good thing. It screens out much of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Ground-level ozone, on the other hand, is generally considered bad. High concentrations can cause respiratory distress. The populations most at risk from ozone are much the same as those who suffer during a bad flu season — children, the elderly, and people who have chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma. The problem in realistically assessing the danger of ozone pollution is that it’s not as simple as counting the number of smokestacks or fume-belching diesel trucks.

“Ozone is not directly emitted from either smokestacks or tailpipes,” wrote environmental scientist Roy Cordato in a 2003 report for the John Locke Foundation. Rather, it is produced as a result of chemical reactions between nitrogen oxide and various volatile organic compounds, in the presence of sunlight and heat.

As a result, even forests can have high natural levels of ozone. In this case, volatile organic compounds from decaying vegetable matter react chemically with light and heat to create ozone. Human activity has little to do with the process.

Within urban areas where air quality is closely monitored, ozone levels can vary from one location to another. But the EPA’s rules are strict. If just one location reports unacceptably high ozone, then the entire metro area is deemed to be in crisis mode for that day.

Likewise, Cordato reported that there is a weak correlation, at best, between high-ozone days and hospital admissions for respiratory problems, even among the identified high-risk groups.

Certainly, the last few years in Charlotte suggest that the weather may have more influence over ozone pollution than the number of cars on the road.

In 2004 Charlotte exceeded the ozone safe levels established by the EPA on only four days. The summer of 2004 was also one of the coolest on record. The year 2003 was also cool and Charlotte reported only four bad days of ozone.

“If every summer was like the last two, there would be no ozone problem here,” Willard said. However, there is no way to predict whether the return of sultry temperatures will cause problems, such as in 2002, when Charlotte reported 26 days of high ozone.

It appears almost impossible to create a meaningful trend line that would separate weather effects from whatever positive measures are being taken to reduce ozone pollution.

Hutson said he thinks that even without any extraordinary measures, the trend is likely to be favorable, if for no other reason than new vehicles operate cleaner.

Accordingly, during last fall’s public hearings, Hutson challenged Mecklenburg commissioners to take some aggressive but market-based steps to banish old smoke belchers from the road. He suggested either a tax credit for purchases of clean-operating new vehicles, or a sales tax holiday for vehicle purchases.

“I can tell you that this was one of the few times in my legal career that I felt I had the attention of everyone in the room,” Hutson said.

Still, there is no indication that Mecklenburg County is ready to give up any tax dollars in favor or cleaner air. But Hutson said he stands by his proposal and hopes it gets a serious look someday.

Bob Fliss is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.>/I>