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It'll Only Get Worse

Charlotte has a month to join fight against EPA rule changes

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If you think Charlotte's air quality is bad now, just wait. Changes to the Clean Air Act by the Bush administration, if upheld, will result in an increase in the amount of sulfur dioxide, ozone, and other nasty, lung-grabbing chemicals in the air we breathe. Of course, it's not just Charlotte's air that will suffer. In fact, on October 27, several cities and 12 states in the Northeast filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to overturn its recent gutting of key provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Other cities and states have until December 26 to join the lawsuit to protect their air quality from further deterioration. Despite Charlotte's well-publicized air pollution problems, and the publicity given the lawsuit against the EPA, a survey of Charlotte City Council and the mayor shows only a couple of council members in favor of considering joining the lawsuit. A couple more council members are strongly opposed to suing the EPA, and others say they don't know enough about the issue to take a position.

In a stunning modification of the Clean Air Act, the Bush administration issued rules changes recently which will allow thousands of older power plants, oil refineries and industrial units to make extensive upgrades without having to install new anti-pollution devices. This requirement to install the anti-pollution devices was a critical part of the federal government's efforts to clean up the country's air quality. Bush's changes constitute a sweeping and cost-saving victory for industries, allowing them to continue to emit hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere, and save millions of dollars in pollution equipment costs, even if they increase the amounts of pollutants they emit.

What does this mean for Charlotte, a city that, according to the American Lung Association, is already eighth on the nation's dirty air list? While NC has some additional pollution controls to rely on in the form of the state's Clean Smokestacks Act, one of the biggest threats to our city's air quality is pollution that drifts in from our neighbors, specifically coal-fired plants in states to the south and west of us -- states without NC's more environmentally friendly legislation.

Air quality in North Carolina has gotten so bad, it has caused a steady increase in the number of asthma, emphysema and lung cancer cases. According to a recent study by the consulting firm Abt Associates, which conducts assessments for the EPA, North Carolina ranks sixth in per capita deaths from power plant pollution, with an estimated 1,800 North Carolinians dying each year from it.

The Bush administration's changes in the EPA rules -- in effect, giving the green light for more soot in the air -- will only make Charlotte's air quality worse than ever.

All of this has prompted some local politicians, environmentalists and air quality experts to suggest that NC and Charlotte should join in the lawsuit against the EPA to stop what many say is the biggest threat to our environment in 30 years.

During her campaign, newly elected City Council member Susan Burgess stressed the importance of cleaning up Charlotte's dirty air, and says she's eager to address the issue.

"[Bush's new rule] is especially damaging to Charlotte and the state of North Carolina," Burgess said. "In addition to the Charlotte urban region having the eighth dirtiest air in the nation, North Carolina last year had among the nation's highest levels of sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of burning coal. The health risks are now evident in the spike of asthma cases, especially in children and elderly, emphysema and lung cancer. The economic risk is very high as well. Air pollution threatens the trees in the North Carolina mountains, where tourism is the number one industry. Maybe the NC Attorney General should join in the lawsuit. After all, Republicans have lungs and grandchildren, too. Do they have an environmental conscience?"

City Councilman John Tabor disagrees. "My understanding is Duke Power is standing by their commitment to reduce the pollutants from their plants per the NC Clean Air Act," said Tabor, referring to the Clean Smokestacks Act. "If that is the case, I do not see a need to be involved in the suit. Duke should be commended for that position. It is also my understanding that with the [Clean Smokestacks Act], we have one of the most stringent policies in the country."

How Did It Get To This?
Power plant emissions aren't the only culprit contributing to our dirty air; automotive exhaust is also doing some pretty heinous things. While there is some debate as to which one poses the biggest threat, most seem to agree the primary culprits are coal-fired power plants. State analysts say power plants produce about 40 percent of the ozone-forming nitrogen oxides in Charlotte, and about 70 percent of the state's sulfur dioxide, a source of haze, fine particulate matter and acid rain.

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