by Ulla Reeves
Every year, over 12 million people visit North Carolina’s most treasured natural area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Despite it being our region’s most iconic natural area, and the most visited national park in the United States, the Smokies are constantly facing threats from air pollution. The people visiting and enjoying the Smokies, and all those living and breathing across the surrounding region, are affected by dirty air that harms our lungs, clouds our views, and disproportionately harms people who live closest to polluting facilities. While North Carolina and surrounding states have significantly cut emissions from polluting coal plants over the last decade, the job is not yet done and the challenge of cleaning up the air and reducing hazy skies remains.
Air pollution can travel hundreds of miles, which means that the Smokies and other public lands protected under the Clean Air Act (such as Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Shining Rock, and Swan Quarter Wilderness Areas, to name a few) are affected by the pollution of dozens of power plants and industrial facilities located around the Southeast. In fact, they are some of the most polluted public lands in our nation due to the onslaught of this regional pollution – the Smokies rank 9th among national parks that are supposed to be protected from haze pollution.¹
This year, all states including North Carolina, have the opportunity and obligation to continue clearing the air and making important progress toward delivering clearer skies by preparing a Regional Haze Plan. North Carolina must create a plan that addresses the heaviest polluters and determines which control measures can drive down emissions. Polluting facilities like Blue Ridge Paper Mill, Duke Energy’s Marshall, Roxboro, and Mayo coal plants, and many other chemical and industrial facilities across the state are supposed to be evaluated for their contribution to poor air quality in these special places.
Unfortunately, North Carolina’s proposed Regional Haze Plan is falling short of making significant pollution reductions and holding the heaviest polluters accountable. Over 30 facilities contribute to hazy skies and unhealthy air across the state, yet North Carolina has only analyzed three sources and has no plans to require new emission reductions on these facilities. Most disappointing is that no coal plants were selected to reduce emissions or secure for retirement (a goal Duke Energy has actively pursued), despite coal representing the state’s largest source of haze pollution. To make matters worse, North Carolina, through collaboration with other states to prepare for the haze rule process, used older data in their analyses. This led to the exclusion of consideration of nitrogen oxides – a primary contributor to haze pollution and the formation of harmful ground-level ozone pollution.
Developing a strong Regional Haze Plan is an opportunity North Carolina shouldn’t pass up. It’s the state’s best available tool to achieve important clean air progress for these special wildernesses and to proactively address the climate crisis. Furthermore, the same pollution that drives haze is also affecting the health of communities living near these coal and industrial facilities – disproportionately communities of color and where many residents are living below the poverty line.
For example, the Pilkington Glass manufacturing facility in Scotland County, a Title V permitted facility (designated as a major source of emissions under the Clean Air Act), is in a community of color where nearly 30% of people live below the poverty line. However, Pilkington Glass was not selected as a source to be controlled under the Haze Plan, leaving the nearby community at risk of the myriad health issues that air pollution causes.
If North Carolina were to include nitrogen oxide pollution in their Haze Plan as EPA has directed states to do, it could also mitigate the formation of ozone pollution and its adverse effects on human and plant health. Ground-level ozone can cause the muscles in the body’s airways to constrict, making it more difficult to breathe, and it can aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.
Ozone pollution can also damage the tree canopy and plant life in the Smoky Mountains and other public lands. Ozone pollution harms plants by entering the stomata (pores used for respiration) and oxidizes (chemically degrades) the flesh of the plant during respiration; this reduces growth rates and endangers the survival of plants and trees, which in turn alters the ecosystem’s natural processes over longer periods of time.
The clock is ticking for North Carolina to submit its Regional Haze Plan. Thankfully you, the public, will have a chance to weigh in and express your shared concerns on North Carolina’s weak plan. The NC Division of Air Quality is seeking public feedback on the state’s Regional Haze Plan; public comments will be accepted until October 15, and an online public hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday, October 6. We need your help to participate in the public comment period and urge North Carolina to expand its list of selected pollution sources and consider more pollutants in its analysis. We encourage all North Carolinians to speak up and let the NC Division of Air Quality know you value our scenic outdoors and clean, healthy air.
If you are interested in becoming engaged on this important issue, there are ample opportunities to take action. Your voice and your participation matters in our efforts to protect our air – so that we all can enjoy those stunning views from Mt. LeConte in the Smokies and breathe clean air in our neighborhoods. Together, we can ensure that North Carolina’s most treasured natural places are safe and healthy for millions to enjoy now and for future generations.
Comments can be submitted by email to [email protected] with the subject line “NC RH SIP” or by voicemail at 919-707-8403. Deadline for public comments is Friday, October 15.
You can also provide comments at the virtual public hearing on October 6. Register to speak at the hearing by going to DEQ’s registration form or calling 919-618-0968. Deadline for speaker registrations is 4:00 p.m. on October 6.
1: Park rankings were obtained using data from the Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE, http://vista.cira.colostate.