Clean air, cheaper gas and more jobs: Charlotte area breaks out of EPA’s dirty air penalty box

Freedom Park in Charlotte. Image credit: Flickr via Ed MacDonald.
Freedom Park in Charlotte. Image credit: Flickr via Ed MacDonald.

Freedom Park in Charlotte. Image credit: Flickr via Ed McDonald.

RALEIGH – North Carolinians are breathing easy, according to the U.S. EPA. The nation’s environmental watchdog says that Charlotte, the last area to be out of compliance with federal air quality standards, has reached “attainment” for clean air. The agency also said it would relax summertime gasoline standards for the Charlotte metro area, saving drivers around 7 cents per gallon in the summer.

The EPA published the news in the Federal Register Tuesday, according to a news release by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“The EPA’s redesignation of the Charlotte metro region as attaining the 2008 ozone standard is a substantial accomplishment for the state and local governments, resulting from years of steady improvements in air quality,” state air quality chief Sheila Holman said in a statement.

Charlotte was the only remaining area of North Carolina to be in non-attainment, EPA-speak for areas out of compliance with federal standards. Restrictions on areas in non-attainment can substantially retard economic development for a region, meaning fewer jobs for residents.

According to state air quality officials, air quality across the state has improved due to declining emissions from motor vehicles, power plants and other industrial sources. The Division of Air quality in particular pointed the Clean Smokestacks Act, state legislation adopted in 2002 that required coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions by about three-fourths, resulting in cleaner air but higher power bills. Federal requirements have also helped, according to the agency, including emissions restrictions on automobiles and cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel requirements.

Cheaper gas for Charlotte drivers

The gasoline formulation change allows fuel stations in Charlotte to sell the same kind of gasoline as in other parts of the state, rather than switching to more expensive, low-volatility fuel during the summer months. The EPA had required low-volatility gasoline for many years in the Triad, Triangle and Charlotte metro areas.

The N.C. Division of Air Quality requested the change because Charlotte no longer violates federal ozone standards and the division’s analyses determined that low-volatility gasoline had no discernible effect on ozone levels. DAQ says that low-volatility gasoline cost about 7 cents more per gallon on average than gasoline with less stringent vapor requirements.

A similar relaxation of the standard for the Triangle and Triad regions of the state for summer 2014 saved motorists about $18 million, according to state officials. In 2014, Gov. Pat McCrory awarded DAQ Director Holman and other environmental staffers a state commendation for their work to save motorists money.