Did N.C. lead a retreat from cleaner air standards?

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 6, 2011 | Energy Policy

Recent articles in the New York Times and the Raleigh News & Observer suggested that North Carolina and its governor, Bev Perdue, may have played a key role in halting White House efforts to ratchet up the current ozone air standards. In September, the Obama Administration suddenly announced it was dropping its two-year effort to strengthen ozone standards to the science-based levels recommended by an independent scientific advisory committee.

Governor Perdue’s office maintains that North Carolina’s appeal to stick with current, inadequate public health protections came from a letter written in March 2010 by then-Head of the Division of Air Quality, Keith Overcash, which was sent directly to EPA without going through the Governor’s office.  If that is the case, we are still waiting for the Governor to publicly set the record straight by responding to the newspapers’ revelations while she offers her support for stronger clean air standards.

That position would be consistent with North Carolina’s track record as a regional leader in efforts to promote cleaner air, first through the passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002 and more recently through its Clean Air Act lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. However, the March 2010 letter is a disappointing reminder of just how tenuous these commitments can be and how disconnected our agencies can sometimes be from the ultimate channels of political leadership. It is notable that despite such efforts, Charlotte, NC retained its spot among the top ten most polluted cities in America for ozone according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report 2011, confirming why stronger standards are still needed.

The hard truth is that maintaining inadequate public health protections won’t provide a solution to our economic woes. To the contrary, we may see increased financial hardships as all of us remain at a higher risk for respiratory illness, heart attacks and asthma coupled with the associated medical costs. On the other hand, stronger ozone standards could have yielded health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion annually by 2020 in addition to billions of dollars earned through development and adoption of pollution control technologies. Because leaders in business and industry continue to sharpen their knives to attack even the most modest public health standards, it’s important for North Carolina’s public officials to look after citizen interests and so we urge Governor Perdue to set the record straight and speak out in support of clean air standards that improve public health.

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