RALEIGH – Employees of North Carolina’s environmental agency celebrated progress in cleaning the state’s air Wednesday. This year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the entire state to be in compliance with its ambient air quality standards.
“We’ve had huge reductions in pollutants that needed to be reduced, they were reduced, and guess what the result is: cleaner air for everyone,” said Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “What is good about today, is that the Clean Air Act actually works.”
Before being named secretary of the department in December 2014 by Gov. Pat McCrory, van der Vaart had worked for years in the state Division of Air Quality, part of DEQ, as a permit engineer. The General Assembly recently renamed the department; for years it had been known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Before the EPA announced in July that it was in compliance, the Charlotte metro area 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 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. And the nationwide switch to natural gas for electricity generation, which followed a boom in domestic production of natural gas, has also led to cleaner air as coal-fired generation plants were retired and gas-fired plants built.