Triad air quality improves

by Amy Kingsley

The smog has lifted around the Triad.

That, at least, was the conclusion of Environmental Protection Agency officials who announced on Nov. 27 that the region was on track to achieve federal air quality standards a year ahead of schedule. The EPA credited their Early Action Compacts program in which local governments can present a plan to reduce air pollution and avoid sanctions. Guilford and 10 nearby counties, all of which exceeded smog guidelines, formed an early action compact in 2002 to achieve better air quality by the end of 2007.

Municipalities exceeding smog limits set by the EPA that do not participate in the Early Action Compact program face stricter industry regulations and reductions in federal highway funds. The program works by encouraging earlier, voluntary reductions in air pollution.

“If you get on that non-attainment list you basically drop off the site list for businesses looking to locate in your area,” said Sandy Carmany, a Greensboro City Council member and co-chair of the Triad Early Action Compact.

Carmany and other area officials said outside factors like improvements in automotive emissions and legislation that forced Duke Power to clean up Belews Creek Power Plant likely improved air quality more than the compact’s voluntary changes.

“You have to be really honest and say the big changes right now have to do with cleaner engines and cleaning up Belews Creek,” said Ginger Booker, the assistant director of the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments.

Thirty to 40 local governments participate in the compact, which includes guidelines on open burning bans and mass transit improvements. Small changes include a no-idling policy for all school buses and a truck stop electrification program. Larger changes consist of environmentally friendly planning and public transportation policies.

Greensboro is leading the effort to improve public transportation, Booker said. Local bus systems including the new university shuttle HEAT, GTA and the Piedmont Area Regional Transit (PART) have increased ridership, Carmany said.

Booker said the compact has inspired some of the smaller cities to change their ways.

“I think its going to make a change and I think those changes are already happening,” Booker said. “Even in some of the medium-sized cities, even in Lexington and Burlington they’re building sidewalks and bike routes.”

The Early Action Compacts program does have its critics. In 2004 the Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter to the EPA explaining its concerns with the program. David Farren, a lawyer with the center, said the voluntary plans might lack accountability and actually end up delaying changes in industry and transportation that would reduce smog to healthier levels.

Farren and the center worked closely with the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments to ensure the compact would be a national model.

Carmany and Booker said major changes must occur for the Triad to permanently clean up its act.

“Once the power plants are cleaned up the number one pollutants are our cars,” Carmany said. “Our driving rate continues to skyrocket.”

Greensboro’s rate of miles traveled more than tripled the population growth during the last decade, Carmany said. City residents drive an average of more than 33 miles daily, a number that rivals notoriously sprawling Atlanta.

Since FedEx decided to locate a hub in Greensboro, the city has endeavored to portray itself as the ideal location for transportation and logistics-oriented businesses. Those types of businesses would bring more jobs to the area, but also more traffic and pollution, Carmany said.

Changes like installing bike lanes and increasing bus fleets might have little affect in the short term, but will ideally lead to more sustainable communities in the future, Booker said.

“I think the whole air quality thing is something we’re going to have to live with,” Booker said. “The more we hear about it, the more it’s going to affect the way we live.”

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