Tell the Division of Air Quality what projects you think the state should fund using the $92 million settlement money to reduce diesel pollution. Submit comments by 5 p.m. on Dec. 31 to this email address: daq.NC_VWGrants@ncdenr.gov with the subject line “Response to NC VW RFI”.
A Boeing 737 headed for the runway a Piedmont Triad International skims over Guilford Elementary School. With 563 students in grades Pre-K to 5, the school lies just half mile from the terminal, which, like most airports, exudes a light nose of jet fuel and diesel fumes. In fact, PTI emits 162 tons of nitrogen oxide, a major component of diesel emissions, each year, according to state figures. Still, that’s far less than Charlotte, which emits more than 2,500 tons annually.
The school, whose student body is 85 percent Black or Hispanic, lies even closer to Interstate 73 — a mere 684 feet. A mile southwest of the school, where two-thirds of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, diesel-fueled semi-trucks roll in and out of a Harris Teeter distribution center, full of grocery goods.
Thousands of people in North Carolina’s largest cities live, work or go to school in these diesel zones. The heavily trafficked areas are near major thoroughfares, airports, railroads and other transportation hubs where residents live in an invisible cloud of diesel emissions.
Many of the neighborhoods are low-income, like the mobile home parks that line part of I-85 in Orange County; the strip of East Durham, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and NC 147, which sidles next to the Boys and Girls Club; and the so-called “Fragile Crescent,” neighborhoods in North Charlotte cradled by interstates 485, 85 and 77. But residents in even more upscale areas — Brier Creek in northwest Raleigh, for example — are near diesel sources.
The pollutants from diesel emissions harm human health. Among them, nitrogen oxides, also known as NOx, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and microscopic particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, can cause or worsen asthma, various respirator ailments and heart disease, particularly among the elderly, children and those with chronic illness. Recent studies show air pollution is linked to diabetes, and dementia and bone fractures in old people.
Funded by its portion of a federal settlement with Volkswagen, North Carolina now has an opportunity to reduce diesel emissions of NOx, especially in the hardest-hit areas. The $92 million allocated to North Carolina is part of a nationwide multi-billion-dollar penalty assessed by the EPA on the car company after federal officials learned it had violated the Clean Air Act by cheating on millions of emissions tests. (The dollar amounts were divvied up based on a state’s population and the number of registered VW vehicles — 18,700 of the affected cars were in North Carolina.)
“This is a great example of how federal fuel efficiency standard and state vehicle inspections are protective when companies don’t have a conscience,” said Terry Lansdell, public policy manager for Clean Air Carolina, based in Charlotte. “Diesel mobile pollution” — that emitted by planes, trains, boats and vehicles — “is the worst we have.”
(It’s worth noting that despite the success of emissions and inspections programs in cleaning the air, the state legislature has rolled back these requirements in 52 of 100 counties.)
Below: Nitrogen oxide emissions from highway vehicles only, ranked by county. Does not include NOx emissions from airports, railroads or shipyards. NOx emissions from this source are highest primarily in urban or densely populated counties: Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Buncombe and Forsyth round out the top five.
(Source: DEQ 2015 emissions inventory)
The state Division of Air Quality is developing a proposal to use the funds. The projects, subject to approval by an EPA-appointed trustee, could include new electric car charging stations, cleaner engines for school buses and public transit, and technology to decrease emissions from airport vehicles, tug boats and locomotives.
Mike Abraczinskas, director of the state’s Division of Air Quality, told Policy Watch that while reducing NOx is the goal of the program, the state’s overall air quality could improve. “We’re going to get co-benefits by virtue of replacing very old and dirty engines,” he said.
But when $92 million is at stake, the selection process is bound to be complicated and prone to being politicized. After the Division of Air Quality receives public comment, it must also conduct a technical analysis on the proposals. It’s expected that the number of proposals will far outstrip what $92 million will cover.
“There are greater needs than the funds will pay for,” Abraczinskas told lawmakers on the Joint Energy Policy Commission in November. In prioritizing the projects, he said, DAQ has to evaluate cost effectiveness, the potential gains in air quality and environmental justice issues within disproportionately impacted communities.
Legally the appropriation must pass through the legislature. “I’m questioning the state’s ability to spend they money without an appropriation from the General Assembly,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican.”Or would the state treasurer be writing the checks?”
Lansdell said lawmakers need to step aside and “let DAQ do its job.” It’s a complex process, he added, and “they shouldn’t put extra restrictions on DAQ to spend the money.”
Each state has its own timeline to take several rounds of public comment, to submit a plan to the federal trustee and to allocated the funds.
Already, the electric-vehicle industry — Tesla, Plug-In NC and others — sees an opportunity to expand fleets of zero-emissions buses and increase the number of charging stations. Chargepoint, which connects networks of these stations, told lawmakers that the ratio of electric cars to stations is 15 to 1. (They’re also hard to find in rural areas of the state.)
“Let’s not retrofit these engines with natural gas,” Lansdell said. “Instead, we want DAQ and the legislature to invest in solutions for the next generation: electric vehicles.”
Below: NOx emissions from highway vehicles, listed alphabetically by county, 2015