Where state regulators fail, citizens step in to monitor the air
The view from the porch of a 1920s bungalow on East Pettigrew Street in Old East Durham is not of trees. Not of a grocery, a restaurant or a beauty salon. Not even another house or an empty lot. Instead, you can sit on your step with a cup of coffee and gaze upon the gates of a drywall supplier and the silos of a concrete plant.
This historic African-American neighborhood is hemmed between the NC 147, where tens of thousands of cars travel daily, and the railroad tracks, where about a dozen diesel trains each day leave contrails of black exhaust. Along both sides of this two-mile stretch lie a chemical plant and the Boys & Girls Club, the East Durham Children’s Initiative and four concrete plants.
These concrete plants are among roughly 400 facilities statewide that are no longer required to have a state air permit to operate. New rules passed this year by the state Environmental Management Commission exempt certain polluters , deemed low-level by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, from securing a permit. Based on their emissions levels, more than 1,110 facilities qualified to apply for what is called a “rescission.” As of Nov. 14, DEQ has rescinded nearly 400 permits. The agency has denied just two.
North Carolina regulators like to tout the improvements in statewide air quality over the past decade. But these improvements do not account for the many pockets of pollution that afflict neighborhoods, especially those that are low-income or communities of color. For example, NCPW analyzed census data associated with the zip codes where the exempt facilities were located. More than half — 200 of the exempt facilities — were in zip codes with individual poverty levels above the state average of 17 percent.
Download  the raw data.
And taken in tandem with the General Assembly’s rollback of the state’s air monitoring program — DEQ has discontinued at least five ozone monitors, 16 fine particle monitors and one particulate monitor —these permit exemptions can jeopardize the public health in the affected neighborhoods.
For example, those four concrete plants in East Durham emit low levels of particulate matter. PM2.5, as it’s known, burrows deep into the lungs and doesn’t leave. Chronic exposure can cause or exacerbate serious lung and heart disease. “Individually, these facilities may not have a huge impact,” said Terry Lansdell, program director of Clean Air Carolina, based in Charlotte . “But there is a cumulative effect. It has a direct impact on neighborhoods and communities.”
With more environmental rollbacks pending at the state and federal level, Clean Air Carolina has launched a new AirKeeper program  that puts monitors in the hands of communities. Currently, the monitors, measure particulate matter; next year they will also measure ozone.
People can use them as a mobile device, touring their neighborhood and recording real-time data. Or residents can post one in their yard or school or playground. The air monitor then records and uploads pollution data to a public website. That information can then be used to change public policy: planting more trees, resynchronizing stop lights, switching from gas-powered to hybrid buses.
“This is an opportunity to take control at the hyperlocal level,” Lansdell said. “It empowers people to monitor the air they breathe.”
DEQ has justified the permit exemption program in terms of cost. According to the agency, the changes save businesses an estimated $771,950 per year in permit fees and associated costs. The Air Quality Division could lose about $280,850 annually in revenue from permit fees, but will no longer have the administrative costs associated with writing and renewing permits for most small sources.
Yet since the agency relies on permit fees to fund some of its monitoring, compliance and enforcement obligations, it’s unclear whether the administrative cost savings make financial sense.
But the ramifications of permit exemptions resonate far beyond the balance sheet, especially in terms of transparency. “Once you take away the permit requirement, we lose access to those facilities on a regular basis,” he said. “You then must have federal air quality rules to help with enforcement.”
DEQ spokesman Tom Mather emphasized that the exempt facilities still have to meet all air quality rules and are still subject to inspection. “We don’t expect that this administrative change will impact air quality,” he said.
However, Mather said DEQ doesn’t measure air pollutants at any small sources, only at large facilities, such as coal-fired power plants. “Air quality monitoring is very expensive and generally done at scattered locations across the state to assess overall ambient air quality,” he said. “Not emissions from particular sources.”
In fact, only about a third of North Carolina counties are included in the state’s monitoring program; the rest may have few if any monitors. Many of the excluded communities are in rural areas, which may be low-income or minority.
DEQ will gauge the effectiveness of the permit exemption programs, Mather said, based on inspections and public input. “Are we seeing any increases in violations from exempt sources? Are were receiving more complaints about odors, dust and other factors from people living near sources?”
Armed with scientific data from community air quality monitors —anecdotal evidence can be hard to document and easy to dismiss — citizens could pressure state and federal policymakers to pass or enforce stricter laws. “The monitors could open up a Pandora’s box,” Lansdell said.
While Governor-elect Roy Cooper will name the next DEQ secretary, he will still be hamstrung by a recalcitrant legislature to strengthen environmental laws. But Cooper has several environmental bonafides as attorney general. In 2006, Cooper sued the Tennessee Valley Authority — and won — over its pollution in the North Carolina mountains. Cooper will still have the power of the bully pulpit and his authority to appoint environmental stewards, rather than obstructionists, to key posts.
“With policy, it’s remarkable what you can do to clean the air,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “You can get it done.”
A crowd hovered around a table at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, where Mary Stauble, coordinator for Clean Air Carolina, demonstrated an air sensor. About the size of an adult hand, the sensor is black and has small rounded “ears,” that resemble those of Mickey Mouse.
The sensor is linked to a mobile device — a tablet or phone — and the user can graph or map the levels of particulate matter by just swiping a box onscreen. (The sensor also measures decibel levels in the immediate area, helpful to monitor noise pollution.)
These citizen monitoring programs will likely become even more important under a Trump administration. The president-elect has threatened to dismantle scores of environmental laws, an anti-regulatory stance mirrored by NC DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, who’s now angling for a job at the EPA.
“We’re entering a period where regulation is a four-letter word,” said Dan Costa, the EPA’s national program director for the Air, Climate and Energy Research Program. Costa spoke earlier this week to about 100 people at a Clean Air event at the community college. “Sometimes people can make a difference on a specific sites, but if you don’t have the political power can’t do much. Yet now we’re in the midst of a revolution. We’re putting power in the hands of the people, so they can actually do something for themselves.”
The EPA is collaborating  with for-profit companies Aclima  and Google to deploy mobile monitoring in the software company’s streetview cars. Melissa Lunden, managing director of research for Aclima showed graphs illustrating huge spikes in pollutants within two blocks in two distinct areas of Los Angeles. Both spikes occurred near stoplights and others happened near airports. Other data showed toxic hotspots, where, without the information, there would be nothing to prompt regulators to intervene. “We can’t change what we can’t measure,” Lunden said.
Building these large-scale networks could eventually show thousands of cities and their pollution levels, down to the block or even the back yard. Lunden said. And the technology could be used globally, where entire countries and even large parts of continents have no air monitoring.
“Instead of top down, it’s region up, person up, city up,” Lunden said. “It’s a populist time.”
* Facilities with emissions of less than 5 tons per year of certain pollutants and less than 10 tons per year of all pollutants.
* Number of eligible facilities: 1,110
* Facilities that emit between 5 and 25 tons per year of certain pollutants will be required to register but, according to DEQ, “will be less burdensome than permitting.”
* Number of eligible facilities: 320
All emissions standards apply.
Permitted facilities can make minor changes to equipment without first modifying  their air permits.