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School air data suspect, officials say

Officials from Haywood County and the state Division of Air Quality are disputing a recently released report by USA Today that lists two schools in the paper mill town of Canton as among those with the worst air quality in the nation.

The study looked at 127,800 public and private schools. According to the report, only 220 schools in the country have worse air than Bethel Christian Academy, which sits in the shadow of the Evergreen Packaging paper mill. Nearby North Canton Elementary also ranked in the first percentile, with 256 schools nationwide having worse air quality.

Officials, however, take issue with the accuracy of the report, calling the 2005 data it used outdated and pointing out problems with the source of the data.

“It’s pretty clear from talking to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that there’s a big difference between what USA Today called a study and what DENR and other agencies really use datawise,” said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of Haywood County Schools.

The three-year-old data did not account for pollution control measures put in place since 2005, which could have changed the ranking of the Canton schools.

“Since 2005, Evergreen Packaging has installed $9 million worth of emission and control technology, which has reduced emissions,” Derric Brown, the mill’s director of heath and environmental safety, said in a statement to the press. “It is a very different picture now.”

The report also listed Progress Energy’s coal-fired plant in Buncombe County as a top contributor to local air pollution. But it doesn’t take into account mandatory emission reduction measures that have since taken place at the coal-fired plant.

“North Carolina got this law — the Clean Smokestacks Act — that required power companies to install controls on coal-fired plants,” said Tom Mather, public information officer for the state Division of Air Quality.

The act passed in 2002, but Mather said it can take years for large power plants to build and install the necessary equipment. The scrubbers and other controls built since 2005 have been “over 90 percent effective in removing emissions,” said Mather.

The Clean Smokestacks Act only affected the state’s 14 utility-owned coal burning power plants. A coal-fired plant privately owned by Evergreen Packaging has been allowed to operate outside of the pollution control measures, said Avram Friedman, founder of regional clean air advocacy group the Canary Coalition.

The USA Today study relied on data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, which ranks areas by their emissions of toxic pollutants from industrial facilities. State officials argue the EPA data was meant as a screening tool to identify areas for further studies, not as a way to measure health risks for citizens, according to a Division of Air Quality press release. Officials also say federal data can be less specific and accurate than that collected on a state level.

“We don’t think the (EPA) model was appropriately used for conclusions in the study,” Mather said. “It’s a very broad database, and we have much better data here in North Carolina.”

Officials also say the report failed to weigh other significant contributors to air pollution, including vehicle emissions and Tennessee Valley Authority power plants in other states.

Reactions mixed

Although Haywood County school officials have had “a number of conversations” with the state Health and Human Services Department and DENR, they don’t plan to take action based on the report, Nolte said.

“(The state) has not issued warnings or alerts, nor told us we had to do anything specific,” he said. “Therefore, we don’t plan to make any adjustments unless a reputable state or local government agency indicates what we need to do.”

Community reactions to the report have been mixed. To many, the data wasn’t exactly shocking.

“It’s nothing new to us,” said Friedman. “We’ve been aware for a long time that we have some of the worst air quality in the country.”

The report did help to key others into the issue of local air pollution, Friedman said.

“I think it’s great that the story showed up in USA Today, because it’s all about public awareness,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen until more people become aware and active on the issue and are upset enough to demand change.”

Laurel Long, president of the PTO at North Canton Elementary, said the report has raised some concern and possibly points to the need for better records of air quality around schools. But Long says the actions people can take now that they’re armed with the information are probably limited, besides pulling their kids out of school.

“People don’t have a lot of choice — it’s not like they can always pack up and go somewhere else,” she said.

Long has been happy with her son and daughters’ experiences at North Canton, and says the report shouldn’t cause parents to overlook the school’s wonderful attributes.

“We love North Canton, and it would be a shame for anybody to overreact and feel they don’t want to send their kids there,” she said. “It’s a shame for the school to be painted with a negative brush.”

Factories linked to schools with bad air

Seven schools in North Carolina landed in the top 1 percent of schools in the nation with the worst air quality. Bethel Christian Academy and North Canton Elementary — located in the shadow of Evergreen paper mill — are ranked second and seventh in the state, respectively. The other five schools were all located near manufacturing plants as well. Unlike coal-fired power plants operated by utilities, which must comply with the state’s Clean Smokestacks Act, factories, including Evergreen paper mill in Canton which has its own coal-fired boiler, don’t.

To access the report, visit http://content.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/smokestack/index.

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