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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A small victory in the fight for clean air

Posted By on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 3:24 PM

Anyone paying attention to the General Assembly knows that their work can sometimes feel scattered and confusing. What happened Monday was a singular example of that process in action, with party-line alliances breaking down and the unlikeliest of people changing anticipated outcomes.

Fortunately before the day was over, the residents of this state who are concerned about the air they're breathing won - at least for the time being.

It started with good news in the form of a new report from the International Journal of Cardiopulmonary Disease (yes, that's a thing) showing a substantial decline in deaths from respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and emphysema, in North Carolina over the past few decades as air quality standards were tightened in accordance with the federal Clean Air Act and the state's 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act.

The Senate had been working to roll back those very same standards, in the guise of a budget-cutting maneuver that would have reduced the number of air quality monitoring stations throughout the state. The measure had passed the Senate on May 29, and that bill was scheduled to go before the House very soon.

The state's environmental groups stepped in in early June, mobilizing to stop the cutbacks. June Blotnick, Clean Air Carolina's executive director, told me on Monday their group had earlier in the month passed out face masks to members of the legislature emblazoned with a photograph of a young child suffering from pediatric asthma. (One of nearly 140,00 such children in the state would be at increased risk if these cutbacks were enacted.) "We're not surprised they're trying to get away with gutting things that are supposed to be done by the regulatory agencies," Blotnick said.

Other environmentalists agreed. Charlotte Environmental Action's Jimmy James Tyson told me, "Charlotte has had some of the worst air quality in the nation, due to the ring of fire of coal plants surrounding our city ... It's just simply shameful that the radical legislature in our state is so insistent on absurdist and destructive policies, placing the most vulnerable communities in the crosshairs of toxic pollution."

Then Republican-Democratic affiliations broke down. Mecklenburg Sen. Joel Ford, a Democrat, had broken ranks with the majority of his party in voting in favor of the bill that would have reduced the number of air quality monitoring stations. Charlotte Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson came out in direct opposition to the measure, which the majority of her party members were supporting.

Late Monday, Ford explained his vote to me by saying it was a necessary evil, as the bill had been bundled as part of a large omnibus package, and because his staff informed him that duplicate state and federal regulations would mean that any attempt to roll back the state laws would be moot, as the federal standards would remain in place. Then Samuelson told me in an email shortly after my phone conversation with Ford that the entire issue had been settled, for now; she and other members of the House eliminated that provision from the bill entirely. "I was strongly opposed to that measure being included in the bill," she wrote.

Though seemingly a victory, Clean Air Carolina's Blotnick was reticent to loosen her guard when I asked her if she was encouraged that it appeared "her side" had won this particular battle, given the problems she's been dealing with this year. "We've been able to mobilize thousands in opposition to changing the regulations here," she said, "including doctors and cancers survivors, people with heart attacks, and asthma - because they understand the impact it would have. But yes, without going overboard and getting too excited, this is the kind of result that keeps us going."

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