Commentary

Clean air advocate: Polluter Protection Act will harm health of North Carolinians

The so-called “regulatory reform” bill  (aka the “Polluter Protection Act”) that’s been wending its way through the General Assembly this year contains a laundry list of provisions that would weaken important environmental protection laws and regulations. Laura Wenzel of the Medical Advocates for Healthy Air program at Clean Air Carolina details some of the most troubling in this “must read” op-ed:

H765 and Air Quality: Jones Street has it in for the Joneses

By Laura Wenzel, MSW

Air pollution impacts our lives in surprising ways, and some of the worst impacts don’t happen all at once, but as a gradual accumulation of stresses. Unfortunately, a bill currently being negotiated in the NC General Assembly boosts the harms of air pollution in just this way: a series of weakening changes that add up to bigger risks to our kids, our families, and ourselves.

H765, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, includes provisions that threaten air, water, and land. But to understand just the air quality provisions, let’s consider what H765 does to the hypothetical Jones family.

The Jones family includes Tonya, a pregnant woman; her six-year-old son Joseph; and her mother, Pauline. Their neighborhood is adjacent to a warehouse district, where heavy trucks travel daily. Currently, unless a truck’s engine is required for an operation like refrigeration, the truck is not allowed to idle for more than five minutes. This not only saves wear on the truck’s engine, it prevents diesel pollution from concentrating in the area. However, H765 repeals the anti-idling rule, allowing truckers to idle their vehicles for an unlimited amount of time.

This is bad news for the fetus that Tonya Jones is carrying. Research has found that pregnant women who are exposed to diesel pollution have greater chances of giving birth to a child with autism, cognitive impairments, AHDH and low birth weight, and of premature birth and miscarriage.

It is also bad news for Joseph, who, like 10 percent of children in North Carolina, has asthma. Asthma is exacerbated by air pollution, and asthma attacks already have made Joseph miss several days of first grade, contributing to the statistic showing asthma as the greatest medical cause of school absences in North Carolina.

And there’s another provision in H765 that puts Joseph at risk. Right now, Joseph’s parents rely on the daily air quality forecast to determine whether it’s safe for him to play outside. This forecast is developed through air quality data collected by a system of monitors across the state. Some of these monitors are required by the EPA, and in order to protect the public, the NC Division of Air Quality has been running additional monitors that enhance the EPA monitors or monitor for pollutant types that the EPA does not monitor. H765 shuts down these air monitors, making it harder to make accurate predictions of air quality.

Tonya’s mother, Pauline, who has dementia, lives with the family. Pauline is the only one among her many siblings to have dementia. The family suspects it’s because Pauline worked for ten years in an office next to a solvent factory. A few years back during a factory renovation, workers discovered that the factory’s pollution controls weren’t working, leading to violations of the factory’s air permit. Thanks to a lawsuit by the community, the factory fixed its emissions and contributed to a clinic that provides ongoing care for injured neighbors like Pauline. But under H765’s self-audit provision, if the factory had reported itself to the state first, it would have been exempt from fines. More significantly, all the company’s internal reports, so important to the community’s lawsuit, would have been privileged, hidden from the court’s view, leaving the community without a remedy.

Air pollution is dangerous from early childhood through old age. We have made great strides in North Carolina to protect families like the Jones family from dangerous air pollution. House Bill 765 has the potential to undo all of that, putting the future of all North Carolinians at risk.

Laura Wenzel is the Manager of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air.

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