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WNC cries foul over air pollution payments going down East

fr nocoalWestern North Carolina for now has dodged concerns that it was getting short shrift in a legal settlement intended to compensate the region for air pollution blowing in from dirty coal plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority in neighboring states.

In a federal lawsuit waged and won by the state of North Carolina against TVA, the utility was not only ordered to install modern pollution controls on its dirtiest plants, but it also had to pay out $11.2 million to go toward projects that address air quality in North Carolina. The settlement stipulated that Western North Carolina, which feels the brunt of the pollution wafting in, would be first in line for the money.

Only $4.5 million has been paid out so far, with the rest to come in later payments.

That first $4.5 million, however, was slated to head downstate instead of to WNC in the original version of the state budget passed recently by the General Assembly. 

Of the $4.5 million, the budget specified that $2.24 million would go to N.C. Biofuels in Oxford and the other $2.24 million to the N.C. Department of Agriculture for to-be-determined projects.

Dan Crawford of the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, a statewide environmental lobbying group, described attempts to wrest the TVA settlement money from WNC as foolish.

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“There’s a lot of people in Raleigh who think the state ends in Hickory,” the Asheville native said. “But, that money should be invested in Western North Carolina because the residents there have suffered the most from dirty air.”

WNC legislators went to bat to get the money redirected back to WNC, winning passage in the General Assembly of an amendment that specifically dictated that money from the settlement of the lawsuit must now be spent on grants to aid WNC.

“There is no wiggle room now,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. “This problem has been rectified — the provision of the bill puts the clamp on that and the money must come to WNC.”

The amendment specifies that the settlement money will still be dolled out through the agriculture department, but can only be spent on grants that directly benefit the state’s 17 westernmost counties.

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said the money in the state budget would still have benefited this region even though it was given to programs far away. Republican leaders have also defended the funds going to a biofuels company down East because of a lack of viable initiatives in WNC.

“We had a limited number of programs that qualified for the funds,” Davis said in explanation of why N.C. Biofuels and the agriculture department were chosen by GOP budget writers.  

That didn’t seem to be the case at a series of three outreach meetings in Murphy, Waynesville and Boone last November, hosted by the Energy Office to gather ideas from the public on how the settlement money should be spent.

“There were a lot of ideas, and people had different priorities, but the very, very clear message that came out of those session is that people felt very strongly that the funds should be spent in Western North Carolina,” said Seth Effron of the N.C. Energy Office. 

In the 2011 settlement, TVA agreed to pay a total of $60 million to fund projects in North Carolina, Alabama Kentucky and Tennessee. The money must be spent on 14 environmentally based categories, such as solar system installation and energy conservation in new and existing buildings.

TVA also agreed to spend up to $5 billion cleaning up its coal-fired power plants and to spend $290 million in-house on energy efficiency and renewable energy products.

The terms of the settlement called on the states involved to “use their best efforts to identify projects that are located in TVA’s power service area or the Tennessee River watershed,” which, if heeded, would limit the area involved to WNC.

Effron said spending the money in the mountain counties instead of down East is a matter of fairness. 

“The western end of the state was obviously the most impacted by the reasons for the settlement — pollution and environmental degradation,” he said.

Avram Friedman of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based group that fights air pollution, attended one of the outreach meetings sponsored by the N.C. Energy Office. Like Effron, he said it only seems just for the money to be spent in the region that has been most impacted by TVA pollution. 

Friedman also was disturbed that a portion of the TVA settlement money was being directed toward developing biofuel, which he described as environmentally unfriendly. 

“It’s basically a subsidy for the agriculture industry,” Friedman said of biofuel. “It is getting away from the real issues of developing truly renewable energy resources.”

For his part, Friedman wants some of the TVA settlement money spent on developing wind energy. He envisions wind turbines being setup on mountaintops that are already being used for antennas and other communication equipment.

Bill Eaker of Land of Sky Regional Council, a government planning and development organization, said there were many great ideas that came out of the N.C. Energy Office outreach meetings. There was a lot of concern about the TVA funds going down East in direct contradiction to the TVA settlement language, he said.

“Most people feel that it should be spent in WNC on projects to benefit air quality here,” Eaker said. “Since the impact was to the citizens and the environment of WNC, then this area should benefit from the projects funded by TVA money.”

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