Interview: What’s the State of Charlotte’s Air?

As the Charlotte region grows, its air quality is under threat: Particle pollution from vehicles, ground-level ozone, pollution from coal and natural gas power plants, and more all contribute to an invisible yet serious challenge.

Clean Air Carolina executive director June Blotnick went on the Future Charlotte podcast last month to talk with Ely Portillo about how Charlotte’s air quality can be improved, why pollution is an unequal burden on many communities, and how past decisions about segregation and land use worsen pollution in Charlotte today. The following is an abridged version of their conversation. To hear their full conversation, listen to the Future Charlotte episode.

Ely Portillo: What is the state of our air in the Charlotte region? Are we doing better or worse than when you joined [Clean Air Carolina] 16 years ago?

June Blotnick: On paper, the numbers look good for Charlotte and for the state as a whole. Our air quality meets the federal health standards for ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution—the two air pollutants we’re most concerned about.

Levels of ground-level ozone have definitely improved over the past 20 years due to state and federal policies designed to reduce pollution from coal plants and improve fuel economy standards.

Mecklenburg County Air Quality has had a regional program since 2007 to provide funding to replace or repower heavy duty diesel engines with newer cleaner engines. They are doing a great job on that front.

But still, we are right on the line between meeting the federal ozone standard and not meeting it. Not a good place to be. As a clean air advocacy organization, we have to look deeper at the numbers. While we’ve improved, we have to remember two things.

First, we know that the federal standards are not strong enough to protect public health based on the latest research which shows health impacts in communities that meet the current standard. So if you check the air quality code and it’s green, does that mean our air quality is good?

Clean Air Carolina along with national health organizations have all called for updating standards with the most recent science. That obviously didn’t happen in the last four years so there will be new proposals by the EPA to tighten them. We’ll need people to submit comments to the EPA at that time demanding stronger standards to protect health.

The second thing I want to mention about the standards is that the numbers used to determine whether or not a county’s air quality is meeting the standard are coming from a multi-year set of averages from monitors around the county and state. Not every county has air quality monitors. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.

If you live in a rural county near a wood pellet factory, a major landfill, and a chemical plant or other multiple sources of industrial pollution you have a different exposure story and may not even have monitors in your county.

If you live in the city and use the bus for transportation, depending on the type of fleet it is you’re likely to be exposed to diesel exhaust every day. Different neighborhoods can also have different levels of air pollution. A few years ago Clean Air Carolina began using new technology–portable air sensors to really take a hyper-local look at what people are being exposed to.  (street paving example)

EP: What are the major sources of pollution and poor air quality in Charlotte? How about the rest of the state?

JB: Major sources of air pollution in and around Charlotte come primarily from the energy and transportation sectors. We also have industrial sources we have to consider. With the transition to cleaner fuels and emission control technologies in some places, like Charlotte, we are seeing improvements in air quality.

Nationwide transportation is the #1 source of greenhouse gas emissions and in North Carolina, it’s a close second to energy. If you want to do one thing to impact climate change, air pollution, and public health, buy an electric car. Zero emissions at street level where you walk, ride your bike, or push a stroller.

Other sources of pollution include paper mills, foundries, chemical plants, wood pellet factories, and the concrete and cement industry. In eastern Carolina where there are more hogs than people in many counties, ammonia and sulfur dioxide emissions are rampant and impact the health of residents.

EP: I’d like to talk about how this is an equity issue, and how historic decisions on land use and transportation have played into that. We could talk about the Historic West End project then too.

JB: When we look at historic land use and transportation issues of the 20th century, the redlining practices beginning in the 1930’s really left a legacy of what is called environmental justice or environmental racism.

Redlining was the practice first by the government and then by private companies like banks and other financial institutions of strategically disinvesting in black neighborhoods which caused rates of black homeownership and business ownership to plummet leaving the land in those communities devalued and residents unable to build equity in property ownership.

With the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 $25 billion was invested in the nation’s first interstate highway system. I-77 was approved the following year. Brookshire Freeway and I-77 displaced many black homeowners and tore some neighborhoods apart.

If you look at Charlotte’s redlining map of 1935 overlay it with the County health priority areas of 2012 and the County’s poverty map of 2020, it becomes clear how the legacy of previous land use, transportation, and investment policies have played a key role in current economic and health inequities experienced by black residents and that includes environment impacts.

EP: I think [the Historic West End Green District] is a really good example of showing how that has concrete effects, and also gets to the issue of the air looking the same in the Historic West End as it does in a lot of south Charlotte neighborhoods. I think your project [in the Historic West End] has done a really good job of making the invisible visible for people. 

JB: For the past four years, CAC has been working in the Historic West End which is surrounded by interstate highways and freeways—major sources of air pollution. We started the AirKeepers citizen science program there with three neighborhood leaders using portable air sensors outside their homes to measure fine particle pollution in real-time. We now have AirKeepers collecting data across the state.

What we ultimately found by comparing levels of particle pollution in the HWE to levels in neighborhoods not surrounded by freeways was, the numbers were a bit higher in HWE and there were more spikes in pollution levels.  But even if the pollution levels had been the same, the damage had already been done to communities of color into terms of exposing residents for decades to pollution from the highways and what we call other social determinants of health.

Those various risk factors have created disproportionate health disparities like higher rates of asthma, diabetes, and other illnesses for communities of color. These pre-existing conditions shorten life spans and make individuals at higher risk during a pandemic like we’re seeing now.

The good news as a result of air monitoring done by residents from the HWE  Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted to place a federal particle pollution monitoring station in the HWE. It’s located in a park next to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and can be used to educate the community about air pollution and actions residents can take to protect their health.

There are also plans to create a Green District, with a vision to strategically planting trees in the neighborhoods to filter air pollution, install green walls and green roofs, paint streets white to cool the area, install EV charging stations and adding more solar energy. We’re also working with the community to create a local chapter of our Medical Advocates for Healthy Air initiative to sponsor a health education campaign about the connections between air pollution, climate change, and chronic diseases.

So that’s one example of how citizen scientists can collect and use data to eventually improve air quality and health.

EP: Let’s talk a little about climate change. How do you see that playing into the future of our air quality? How do we need to start thinking about our air quality in the context of a changing and warming world?

JB: There are a lot of ways climate change and air pollution are connected. Take ground-level ozone pollution. It doesn’t come out of tailpipes or smokestacks as particle pollution does. It’s formed through a chemical process, and heat and sunlight are two of the contributing factors. So as the climate gets hotter, ground-level ozone pollution increases. We have to be prepared for that.

We also need to take steps to reduce nitrogen oxide, which is another contributing factor to ozone; Mecklenburg County has really focused on that because ozone has been a major air pollution issue for us. But we need to do more. And the things that contribute to air pollution and climate change are the burning of fossil fuels. We’ve built our whole economy on the burning of fossil fuels in the power sector and in transportation. We’ve got to take steps to transition to cleaner fuels and cleaner energy.

Because the health impacts of climate change are very serious on communities of color, and the public in general. The North Carolina Medical Journal last fall came out with a whole issue focused on climate change, and how we need to prepare for the health impacts of a changing climate. It outlines all the major health impacts that we’re already seeing.

Frankly, if you want to do one thing to have an impact on the climate, it’s to buy an electric vehicle. Transportation is our biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, and in North Carolina it’s a close second.

EP: What else can people do about this? I think that sometimes problems like this can feel almost overwhelmingly big, whether it’s climate change or air pollution from so many sources that we don’t have direct control over. What can people do, both to keep themselves healthy and to help our air stay healthy?

Anything you can do to reduce your carbon footprint in the transportation sector is helpful. We’ve seen evidence of that during the pandemic, when the cars were off the road. Especially in cities around the world that had terrible air quality, you could definitely see that. Charlotte’s doing a good job at trying to expand our light rail system, and bikeways, greenways, things like that. So your transportation choices are definitely something we should look at in our personal lives.

The second big area is energy. Duke Energy still has coal and natural gas plants in the area that are burning fossil fuels. But they’re also making a commitment to renewable energy and electrification of the transportation system. Duke Energy has rebates available at the beginning of the year for rooftop solar installations. I would encourage people to look at that as an option. Clean Air Carolina did a solar home tour a couple of years ago. We rode bikes around the Plaza Midwood neighborhood and were able to talk to homeowners with solar installations.

EP: Finally, how’s the future looking? Are you optimistic? What technologies are on the horizon that we have to look forward to (i.e. will electric cars save us?).

JB: Emission control technologies on the industry side are improving but we often have to advocate that they be required to use them. Idle reduction technologies and telematics help reduce unnecessary vehicle emissions. General Motors and other companies are committing to an all-electric future. The number one thing you can do to take personal action for the planet is to buy an electric car.

But filling our roads with EVs alone won’t save us. When it comes to the transportation sector we need to transform our car-dependent society into one with 21st century clean mobility options. We also need to look at the role hydrogen fuel cell technology can play for future light rail stations, and other transportation and building uses.

We’re in a major transition and developing those mobility options for Charlotte’s future has to happen now. With the 2040 plan, Charlotte MOVES task force, and other plans, we’re moving in the right direction. We have the will, our challenge is funding those options. We’re hoping that the new administration will provides some of that funding the local match is always the sticking point.

Remember, addressing climate pollution also reduces many other kinds of air pollutants. On the climate front at the federal level, we have reason to be hopeful with a new administration making climate change and investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles a priority. President Biden is also going beyond just science-based climate change policy and wants to examine the economic and social justice impacts.

On the state level we have Governor Cooper’s commitment to clean energy, clean vehicles and job creation as well outlined in his Executive Order 80 of 2018 which triggered a whole set of research and reports on how to transition our state to a cleaner energy economy. CAC just filed a petition with the Environmental Management Commission to get NC to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to put a cap on carbon emissions from the electric power sector. A new green back, the NC Clean Energy Fund, is being developed to raise$100-$150 million to underwrite or help establish small clean energy projects and EE programs.

At the local level of course we have the city’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan with a goal of having all city buildings and its fleet carbon free by 2030. We see CATs now committed to transitioning its fleet to electric. We’re seeing more solar companies and more solar on the grid. The County recently hired a Sustainability Manager and drafted an Environmental Leadership Action Plan.  Locally, we have strong commitment to creating a new mobility future for the region.

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