Exile on Jones Street: A few things to keep an eye on

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by Kirk Ross

Traditionally, the state budget act, or in the case of the short session, the budget-adjustment bill, is the longest piece of legislation in a session.

While that’s not likely to change this year, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2014 looks like a close second. The 62-page legislative Christmas Tree, the fourth in a series of similarly titled omnibi, is due for a final vote in the Senate this week and then a trip to the House for further decoration. It dropped last week and rocketed through a couple of committees to the Senate floor.

Sometimes these bills offer a tweak so fine-grained that the impact is almost undetectable unless you’re in the profession or industry affected. But usually embedded in with protocols for mattress inspection or the fees for an oyster permit on a private dock have been some pretty important changes to state environmental protections.

There are lots of big changes among the dozens of provisions in the bill but this year’s special target appears to be state air-quality protections. As it stands now, if passed, it promises to dial back a lot of hard-won fights to clean up our skies.

In case you’ve forgotten or just moved in, here’s a reminder of why we have our own air-quality protections in the first place. In the 1990s in North Carolina, Duke Energy and Progress Energy coal plants — the same 14 places where coal ash is now a focus — were running full tilt. Some were among the dirtiest in the nation. Throughout the decade the companies chose to respond to tightening federal air-quality rules more through the purchase of pollution credits from cleaner producers via new cap-and-trade legislation than closing the dirtiest plants and upgrading others to cut back on emissions.

In a recent article in the journal Environmental Law, UNC’s Richard Andrews spelled out the saga of North Carolina’s groundbreaking — and sky-clearing — Clean Smokestacks Act, which ultimately forced the power companies and a lot of other industries to do what federal rules had not accomplished.

The need for change was evident and alarming. Citing a series of health and pollution studies Andrews notes that the ’90s were a decade of rapidly worsening air for North Carolinians, during which the number of unhealthy air days doubled and the state’s air quality rose to fifth-worst in the nation. There were some awful stretches.

“Smog in North Carolina during April through October 1997 was estimated to have caused 1,900 respiratory-related hospital admissions, 5,700 respiratory visits to emergency rooms, and 240,000 asthma attacks,” Andrews writes. “Particulate emissions from power plants were estimated to be responsible for some 1,800 premature deaths each year.”

On top of public health issues, like soaring rates of childhood asthma, the smog and acid rain caused by power plants further west were killing forests, poisoning surface waters and enveloping the vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains.

That only changed when the state got tough. Today, sulphur and nitrogen emissions are down more than 80 percent from late-’90s levels. Mercury and ozone levels have fallen sharply as well.

Despite the success — or maybe because of it — the legislature is taking aim at these improvements in the name of reform. Reform in this case means making it harder for citizen groups to challenge air-quality permits. It means when those permits are under challenge, the projects are allowed to move forward rather than the current system, which says they must halt until a judge rules on the challenge. Reform means removing half of the state’s array of air-quality monitors, especially those in place to protect wilderness areas and a new one planned for areas soon to be fracked.

Guilford County’s own Sen. Trudy Wade was the floor manager of this bill, a daunting task for anyone, let along a first-termer. She fended off most challenges to the dozens of provisions, but seemed to stumble as to why we suddenly need to turn off a bunch of air monitors around the state, finally arguing that we need to cut down the number of monitors in order to be more efficient.

Undoubtably, senator, but more efficient at what?