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Clean Air Agenda

Group proposes coordinated approach to pollution

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In response to Charlotte's ongoing environmental woes - the most recent being the EPA's 2004 ruling that the Charlotte area is in violation of federal air quality standards for ozone - a regional organization has come up with a multi-pronged plan to help clean up Charlotte's dirty air. The plan offers ways to curb both "mobile source" pollution from automobiles, as well as "stationary source" pollution such as that deriving from power plants.

Dubbed "Clean Air for the Charlotte Area: An Action Agenda," The report's overall aim is to help the eight-county Charlotte region meet the EPA's 2010 deadline to improve our air quality or risk sanctions, including the loss of federal highway construction funds.

Not that a loss of funding is the only hazard. Charlotte's poor air quality also poses a serious public health threat, contributing to asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses. In fact, an estimated 130,000 Charlotte area residents suffer from asthma, about a third of them children. Air pollution has also been linked to increased lung cancer mortality and an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.

While power plants and industrial plants are a significant source of our dirty air, according to the report, transportation-related air pollution is the most crucial issue Charlotte faces. "As of 2000, mobile sources including on-road and off-road vehicles like construction equipment created 60 percent of the emissions that resulted in smog," says David Farren, an attorney for the non-profit Southern Environmental Law Center, which produced the report. "And if you look to 2007, that figure jumps to 75 percent."

Farren says the best way to address the issue is through complementary land-use development and broad regional planning. "If you look back at Charlotte's history, it was in the 1950s when the City of Charlotte and the County put in place an umbrella structure for cooperation," says Farren. "Since then the Charlotte area has grown to include an eight-county region, and government officials haven't kept up. There are thousands of local decisions being made without consideration of the bigger picture."

Part of that bigger picture is the need to recognize our region's explosive population growth and out of control sprawl. Between 1990 and 1999, the Charlotte area's population grew by 27 percent, from 1 million to 1.3 million. Moreover, between 2000 and 2020, the Charlotte metro area is projected to grow by 37 percent, adding nearly 500,000 new residents. Many of these folks are expected to move into the outlying parts of Mecklenburg County and the surrounding counties. According to the 2000 Census, 146,211 of the people who work in Mecklenburg live outside the county, and the vast majority of Charlotte area workers — over 80 percent in 2000 — are traveling solo in their car. All of this adds up to seriously congested roadways and dangerously dirty air.

Various SolutionsOne of the most effective ways to reduce "mobile sources" of pollution, says the group, is to create an infrastructure that makes people less reliant on their cars. Many are looking to the CATS light-rail system to help ease congestion and improve air quality. While Charlotte received some good news last week when it was granted $199 million in federal money, the light-rail project has been fraught with problems. Most notably is the cost increase, which has gone from $371 million in 2002 to the current price tag of $427 million, an expense some say simply isn't worth it. Nonetheless, the 9.6-mile line is expected to start running by 2007. Other transportation-related solutions include various initiatives that encourage businesses and individuals to carpool or take the bus for their daily commutes on days when there are unhealthy levels of ozone in the air.

County Commission Chairman Parks Helms says the Board of County Commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce and the Air Quality Commission are trying to iron out the specifics of such an initiative. However, Helms says, the episodic nature of the initiative could create logistical problems for large employers, and the plan still needs some work. "I can't see how we can do this on a sporadic basis, and the business community is also concerned," Helms says. "We would like to put together a structure to make it ongoing on a day-to-day basis. The Board of County Commissioners has made it clear that we're going to take some action to address the issue of air quality as this 2010 deadline bears down on us. But in order to make it work, you need to have buy-in from the business community. The plan needs to be realistic and manageable."

Solutions include various initiatives that encourage carpools or taking the bus on days when there are unhealthy levels of ozone in the air.

Smart land use planning is another effective tool in the fight against air pollution, according to the report. As opposed to the usual hodgepodge of jurisdictions making land use plans based on economic development and local priorities, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on how developments fit into the Charlotte area as a whole. This includes more mixed-use developments and walkable neighborhoods so residents don't have to rely on their cars just to get a quart of milk or go out to dinner.

City Councilman Pat Mumford says the City Council is currently working on the city's air quality conformity plan, which will be submitted to the federal government this summer. Mumford says the plan deals primarily with mobile sources of pollution, and how to better integrate transportation alternatives and land use. "We're not saying that putting a bus and a light-rail line out there is going to dramatically improve out air quality, but it does start to affect the way land-use patterns develop," Mumford says. "Those 500,000 people that we project to move here in the next 20 years can't all fit in the established neighborhoods we have today. We're going to need to increase density. And the hope is that density will occur where there are transportation alternatives."

Farren points out that not only does the Charlotte region have to improve its air quality by the 2010 deadline, but it also has to stay in compliance with air quality standards for the following 20 years. "This isn't a situation where we can just do a few things right now to temporarily reduce pollution and then never worry about it again," he says. "For better or worse, this will be an issue in the region for some time to come. The solutions to the transportation-related air pollution are all things that will help create a vibrant community with a high quality if life, which leads to continued economic prosperity."

Contact Sam Boykin at sam.boykin@cln.com.

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