Healthy Air, Healthy People: The 20-Year Legacy of CleanAIRE NC and the Clean Smokestacks Act

by June Blotnick

What a difference 20 years makes. 

In 2002 the American Lung Association ranked the Charlotte region as the 9th smoggiest in the country, with several other North Carolina cities faring little better. In response, North Carolina’s bipartisan legislature passed landmark legislation to cut emissions from the 14 coal plants that dotted our state: the Clean Smokestacks Act.

The Clean Smokestacks Act required utility companies to reduce pollutants responsible for haze in the mountains and ozone levels in over 20 counties in violation of the national health-based standard. It also called for a 77% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions by 2009, and a 73% reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants by 2013. Both goals were exceeded. The collaboration among legislators, physicians, tourism officials in western North Carolina, environmental groups, regulatory agencies, and the utilities resulted in cleaner air and better health for all North Carolinians.

The same year the Clean Smokestacks Act was passed, four Charlotte-area volunteers banded together to improve air quality for Mecklenburg County residents. Calling themselves Carolinas Clean Air Coalition, this small group quickly grew into today’s statewide CleanAIRE NC. And for the past 20 years we’ve followed the model of the Clean Smokestacks Act, building collaborative partnerships to spark positive changes for healthy air.

Out Of Sight, But In Our Lungs

One of the very first events I attended as executive director of Carolinas Clean Air Coalition was a press conference held at the Mecklenburg County Health Department. Then-Attorney General Roy Cooper was announcing his plans to sue the Tennessee Valley Authority for the pollution their coal plants sent drifting into western North Carolina. The Clean Smokestacks Act cleverly included a nuisance provision allowing our state to sue out-of-state utilities for their impact on our residents and environment.

What a fitting place to hold a press conference connecting coal plants to air pollution and public health! One of our biggest challenges over the years has been to remind people of that connection. 

Because while air pollution is linked to four of the five leading causes of death in North Carolina, air pollution itself has never been listed as an “official” cause of death in this country. Meanwhile, most of the air pollution over the past decade is invisible to the human eye, making it easy to ignore its dangers. Invisible, but still deadly.

Protecting What Connects Us

CleanAIRE NC has a history of actively educating and engaging North Carolinians in clean energy advocacy.

In 2007 we partnered with organizations from Asheville to Durham to fight the expansion of Duke Energy’s Cliffside coal plant in Rutherford and Cleveland County. We organized energy activists across the state for our Call to Conscience campaign which included a rally, march, and protest at Duke Energy Headquarters that resulted in the peaceful arrest of 44 people.

That same year we fought for a strong Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, the first one in the southeast. Like the Clean Smokestacks Act, the legislation wasn’t perfect. But it was strong enough to launch our state’s nascent solar industry into high gear. 

We brought former NASA scientist Jim Hansen to Charlotte and Chapel Hill to update us on the pace and urgency of addressing climate change. We also hosted the Norwegian Ambassador to the United States, Wegger Christian Strømen, to discuss the impact of climate change on his coastal country.  

Over the years we’ve fought rate hike after rate hike to help alleviate the “energy burden” experienced by low-income ratepayers. We saw the impact coal ash ponds had on water quality in Black and Brown communities living near coal plants. And we learned about the disproportional negative health impacts being borne by those same communities. In 2021 we hired an Environmental Justice Manager to call attention to these inequities and partner with those most impacted by air pollution and climate change to advocate for stronger policymaking.

Taking a lesson from the Clean Smokestack playbook, we organized a network of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to advocate for clean air and climate action. Our Medical Advocates for Healthy Air network transformed our regional initiative into a statewide organization. We then spun-off NC Clinicians for Climate Action just last year to leverage the power of clinicians to change policy. 

All this work building coalitions, educating people, and advocating for change has really paid off. Over the past two decades North Carolina has seen significant declines in many dangerous air pollutants, while our capacity to produce clean energy continues to grow. But as we close the book on our first 20 years and look ahead to our next 20, we know that the fight against climate change and air pollution leaves us little time to slow down.

The Next 20 Years

The statewide leadership we’ve shown in North Carolina is something that will soon become indispensable. Last month’s Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia vs. EPA will limit our nation’s federal response to the climate crisis, so it’s up to the states to take the lead on climate solutions. And few states are better positioned to do so than North Carolina.

The passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act set a precedent for future bipartisan environmental legislation in our state. For Governor Roy Cooper, the work he did on Clean Smokestacks laid a foundation for several executive orders that addressed climate change by accelerating our transition to clean, renewable energy in both the power and the transportation sectors.

And last October, our bipartisan legislature passed the Energy Solutions for North Carolina Act. While not perfect in the eyes of many environmental leaders, it does set an official carbon reduction goal for the first time in our state’s history, requiring the NC Utilities Commission to approve a Carbon Plan that cuts power sector carbon emissions 70% by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels). We’re now collaborating with our partners to maximize turnout at public hearings across the state this month to weigh in on Duke Energy’s draft Carbon Plan, which continues to include coal and fossil gas in their energy mix for over the next ten years.

The partnerships we’ve formed with so many other advocacy groups, scientists, universities, medical researchers, energy experts, environmental justice leaders, businesses, and faith communities have helped us move from Carolinas Clean Air Coalition to CleanAIRE NC. Together we’re forging solutions to three powerful determinants of health in North Carolina: climate change, air pollution, and environmental justice. Because everybody deserves to breathe clean air.