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Open letter on the "Clean Smokestacks" bill

by Sen. Steve Metcalf, Rep. Martin Nesbitt

With any luck, this year's session of the North Carolina General Assembly - now the longest in state history - will soon come to an end.

While we welcome the end of the session, we also believe that the legislature should not complete its work this year without addressing the state's air quality problems.

By now most legislators - and thousands of North Carolinians - know that North Carolina has some of the dirtiest air in the country. Western North Carolina, where we live, has among the state's highest age-adjusted mortality rates for pneumonia, influenza and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - as well as increased rates of asthma and acute respiratory disease for children and adults.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now the most polluted national park. No wonder representatives of our travel and tourism industry support the effort to clean our air. And cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and the Triangle continue to see their air quality diminish, causing more public health problems and putting federal transportation funds - now tied to air quality improvements- at risk.

But this is not just a problem for those of us in the West. A 1999 report found that bad ozone days in North Carolina were responsible for 1,900 respiratory hospital emissions, 630 asthma emergency room visits, and 240,000 asthma attacks for the summer months of 1997.

The source of this air pollution is also well known. The 14 coal-fired plants are the largest source of air pollution in North Carolina. Built before 1975, the plants were exempted from current air quality standards under the federal Clean Air Act. The plants are responsible for 45 percent of North Carolina's nitrogen oxide emissions, 82 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 65 percent of mercury emissions.

Most legislators are familiar with these facts. They also know that a group of legislators, utility companies, businesses and others spent countless hours earlier this year hammering out a solution that is good for our economy, for public health and for the environment.

This solution is called the Clean Smoke Stacks Act, a bill that has been sitting in the North Carolina House of Representatives for months now, following bipartisan approval by the North Carolina Senate.

This legislation, which we have co-sponsored together, would reduce air pollution produced by the 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina by nearly 70 percent during the next decade.

Over the past few weeks, the supporters of this legislation, including the North Carolina Medical Association and the Lung Association, have met with House Speaker Jim Black, who lives in Mecklenburg County and knows the air quality problems that community faces. We've also met with other House leaders as well environmental officials in Gov. Mike Easley's administration to fashion a compromise and win approval of this legislation this year.

Now, with the session finally winding down, supporters of this legislation must support the Speaker and the Governor in their efforts on behalf of this proposal in the House.

The Clean Smoke Stacks Act has the support of environmentalists, business leaders, health organizations and many, many others. It represents an historic opportunity for our state to take a huge step forward in protecting our most important natural resource - our air - for future generations.

Taking that step will bring enormous gains: children and seniors will breathe more easily; millions of dollars in medical expenses will be saved; and our tourism economy and our environment will be protected.

Without this reform, North Carolina will get more of what we have now: dirty air, dead trees, sick children and seniors, and much of the tourism industry damaged by unhealthy air.

North Carolina simply must take responsibility for its own air pollution. That means cleaning up those 14 coal-fired power plants. And it means approval of the Clean Smoke Stacks Act by the North Carolina House of Representatives - this year.

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