"The best laid plans…" often fall victim to late breaking news. I had every intention of writing this article about 7th Avenue--their adventures and misadventures in improving their market share. The interview with a local merchant was already completed and a few extra days were granted from my patient editor. However, between the intention and the copy the Raleigh Clean Air Lobby Day blew in. When I heard the report of Rep. Larry Justus' remarks from my fellow lobbyists, I knew we were in for a change of course. But we will get to Mr. Justus in a moment.

By this time, there is probably not a soul living anywhere in Western North Carolina (except Mr. Justus) that doesn't know that we have a serious air quality problem. Our trees are dying, our once magnificent views are obscured, respiratory illness is increasing, and some of our water ways are more acidic than lemons. The two major sources of this pollution is coal fired plants and vehicles. Power plants emit 82% of all sulfur dioxide air emissions, 45% of nitrogen oxides, and 65% of mercury. Automobiles and other mobile sources emit 48% of the nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides are a chief component of ground level ozone while sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are both ingredients for creating acid rain.

In the spring of this year, Senator Steve Metcalf (Buncombe) and Rep. Martin Nesbitt (Buncombe) heroically agreed to sponsor a Clean Smokestacks Bill that would require the 14 coal fired plants in North Carolina to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 70% using selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology and sulfur dioxide emissions by 90% using flue gas desulfurization systems more commonly known as scrubbers. This bill was necessary because voluntary compliance had failed to work. It has been more than thirty years since the Clean Air Act was established requiring new coal-fired power plants to install state-of-the-art control technologies to reduce smokestack pollution while allowing older plants to continue operating "as is" under a grandfather provision. Did the power companies use this time to replace and retrofit these plants as the writers of the Clean Air Act envisioned? No. Rather, "…their exemption has led to a perverse state of affairs in which electric utilities continue operating their old, inefficient, and high polluting facilities as long as possible to avoid having to meet the strict air quality standards for new facilities…Just three of the fourteen power plants in North Carolina have committed to invest in the best available technology (SCR) for summertime control of NOx…Equally alarming, not one of these plants has invested in scrubbers or other control equipment for sulfur dioxide or mercury.." (EPA "Emission Data for Power Plants, North Carolina, 1999) And mercury levels that are too high for children and women of childbearing age are showing up in king mackerel, bass and bowfin in North Carolina waters.

It certainly is to the credit of the North Carolina Senate that they saw the need for a legal hickory stick passing the Metcalf/Nesbit bill 43-5. Unfortunately, the House hasn't been as conscientious. They allowed the Clean Smokestacks Bill (HB 1015) to languish in the Public Utilities Committee for two months while industry and manufacturers have tried to delay and defeat it. Meanwhile, our air quality continues to spiral downward.

Western North Carolina Alliance based in Asheville has been in the forefront of the battle to get this bill passed. Brownie Newman and his staff have worked tirelessly lobbying and organizing support for this critical piece of legislation that would significantly improve air quality in North Carolina. Thus, it did not surprise me that their latest effort included a bus and cross country bike ride to Raleigh to help breathe life back into this bill. Obviously, their message is getting out for when I looked back as the bus pulled out in the pre-dawn hours almost every seat was filled. Not only were the seats filled with diverse citizens, but they were quite a number of non tree hugger types. As I looked down the manifest, I noticed that the number of no's far outnumbered the yes's to the question "Are you a WNCA member?"

Soon, I was assigned to a lobbying group that included our bus driver, Bill Crawford, a peach of a fellow for volunteering to drive the bus without pay, Stan Kumor (who by the way makes excellent peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), Phil Bennett and Jerilyn McMillan from Old Fort, and Barbara and Richard Engle from Mars Hill. We were assigned six legislators to visit with the health based message, "Clean Air-Can't Wait." Stan and I decided that if time allowedwe would pay a visit to representatives in our area. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that Rep. Larry Justus by chance was assigned to our group. Since I had been invited to speak at a press conference and committee hearing on Rep. Paul Luebke's bill to transfer loop road construction money to road maintenance and public transit, Stan agreed to lead our determined little group, all of whom had never lobbied before. He did a grand job and they had an eventful day.

When I finally caught up with them at 2:00, they couldn't contain their disappointment at the outcome of one of their meetings. They had been unable to find Rep. Justus in his office after several tries and by chance ran into him on the bridge that connects the Legislative Building and the Legislative Office Building. Expecting him to be sympathetic to this issue (especially on a code orange, hazy stagnant air day in Raleigh), they listened in disbelief as he said, "Air pollution didn't affect him." Politely they tried to explain all the facts but were rebuffed with, "The air is not getting any dirtier. I can see just as well now as when I was young. I used to fly airplanes in the military, I could see plumes of smoke coming out of smokestacks, but I don't see that anymore." Bill Crawford interjected, "Sir, I have been living in Macon County for years and I can barely see the mountains anymore."" To which Rep. Justus acidly replied, "Well there must be something wrong with your eyes because I don't have any trouble seeing the mountains."

Trying to recover some hope to the exchange, Jerilyn McMillan offered, "I have six grandchildren and one out of three days they are not supposed to play outdoors." "There must be something wrong with your grandchildren because it doesn't seem to bother my grandchildren."

To tell you the truth, I listened in disbelief, too. Do you think being in Raleigh has prevented him from knowing what the air is like in his own district? Actually the air quality is worse in the Triad and Charlotte than it is here. Or maybe we should just all pitch in on a gift certificate to the new vision center at the new Super Walmart.

To my readers: If you ever wonder if I get comments on these columns, I do occasionally. What are your thoughts on the matter?
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*The opinions stated in this page are those of Ms. Eva Ritchey and do not necessarily represent the views of CyTech Computers & Internet Solutions, Inc.
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