2005 to 2020 mountain views showing air pollution reduction

How the Clean Smokestacks Act breathed new life into NC air quality 20 years ago 

Author: Dawn Haworth

North Carolina is known for encompassing three scenic regions within the state lines.  The presence of the sparkling coast, vast piedmont, and towering mountains contributes to the state’s enticing nature.  From the mountains to the coast, North Carolina is surround by natural beauty and scenic views. Clean air is essential for enjoying those stunning views. 

But by the start of the new millennium, after coal-fired powerplants had for decades been emitting air pollution into the sky, a buildup of haze was sometimes obscuring those views. Some places in the western mountains started to lose some of their charm, threatening the characteristics that residents and visitors were drawn to. 

In the late ‘90s, North Carolina residents in the Blue Ridge Mountains began to raise concern about the reduced visibility of their once seemingly never-ending mountain range. The trees at the top of the mountains were dying, and along with that, the tourism industry was suffering. There was data that the air quality contributed to health conditions like asthma. Locals knew that something needed to change. 

In 2001, state Rep. Martin Nesbitt and state Sen. Steve Metcalf introduced the Clean Smokestacks bill, ambitious legislation aimed at curbing haze and air pollution at its source: power plants. As the bill made its way through the General Assembly, interested parties for and against the new regulations weighed in. To become law, the bill had a long uphill battle.  

But after some creative problem solving, and a bipartisan compromise between the House of Representatives and Senate, there arose a partnership between the state legislators, the regulatory agencies, utility companies, environmental groups, and western North Carolina businesses. The Clean Smokestacks Act was signed into law on June 20th, 2002. 

“The Clean Smokestacks Act is a fantastic North Carolina success story. Out ahead of federal requirements, North Carolina passed this innovative law that was implemented as the interest groups hoped it would be,” previously stated Bill Ross, who at the time of the law’s passage was Secretary for the N.C Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “Emission reductions were achieved, the air got cleaner, people’s health has gotten better, and the skies have gotten bluer.” 

The act required emissions reductions from all coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. The first goal was to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by one-third and sulfur dioxide by one-half within 11 years. As a little over 9 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that year, the success of this act would influence future tourism as well as the economy of Western North Carolina. 

The act has been a resounding success. From 2002 to 2021, the total nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions have outperformed that goal and were reduced by more than 80%. North Carolina has some of the most efficient and least polluting coal-fired electricity generating units in the country and has been increasing its renewable energy capacity. 

air pollution reduction graphs
(Left) Tons of NOx Emissions from 1998 to 2021 (Right) Tons of SO2 Emissions from 1998 to 2021 

Haze is generally caused by fine particles like ammonium sulfate which scatters and absorbs sunlight. With the precursors to these compounds, like SO2 and NOX, being reduced, there is better visibility. At Purchase Knob in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there was an increased visual range of 30.1 miles between 2005 and 2018. 

With the Clean Smokestacks Act, North Carolina became a pioneer on air pollution reductions, leading ahead of federal regulations. In the 20 years it has been in place, the state has seen several benefits. Businesses developed more powerful air pollution control technology, like smokestack scrubbers, to reduce emissions. Acid rain, which can deplete soil nutrients, leak into streams, and cause a loss of aquatic diversity is now less frequent. 

Health-wise, pollution that would have triggered asthma and other respiratory issues was reduced. A study from Duke University found that between 1993 and 2010, there was a correlation between decreasing death rates of emphysema, asthma, and pneumonia and decreases of air pollutant levels in North Carolina. 

This act enabled the state to take great strides in meeting new fine particle and ozone standards throughout the state. A significant reduction of emissions can be observed following the implementation of these practices. 

North Carolina’s commitment to preserving the natural environment has been seen throughout history and has set a precedent for the future of environmental quality in our state. 

“North Carolinians continue to benefit from the dramatic emission reductions from the Clean Smokestacks Act both in improved health outcomes and in the economic impact of improved visibility at our state’s natural treasures,” said North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser. “That success shows what is possible when we work together to move toward a cleaner future.”

Today, we can see the results of the act that worked to protect our small part of the Appalachian Mountains — as well as the views along the coast and across the Piedmont. These scenic landscapes continue to draw people in with fresh air and expansive views that provide all North Carolinians with a getaway from the responsibilities of everyday life. The Clean Smokestacks Act remains an example of how bipartisan solutions can tackle environmental issues and lead to positive outcomes for businesses, residents, and the planet. 

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