The Pulse

Citizen sleuths, here’s how to sniff out air polluters before they come to your town

By: - February 26, 2020 6:00 am
Illustration: Creative Commons

When a polluting industry wants to locate in a neighborhood, residents often learn about the plan when it’s too late, or nearly so. For example, recently, Active Energy has applied to build and operate a wood pellet plant in Lumberton, in Robeson County. And last fall, Carolina Sunrock filed paperwork with the state to operate a mine in Prospect Hill, in rural Caswell County. Both projects face vigorous community opposition.

Citizen watchdogs want to know how to find out about these facilities and permit applications well before the state announces the public hearings and comment periods. Fortunately, there’s a semi-easy way to monitor what could be coming to your neighborhood. The NC Department of Environmental Quality keeps a running online database of air permit applications where you can learn about the status of the facilities. You have to drill down a bit, so I’ll take you through the steps:

  1. Midway down the page at you’ll see a section “What We Do.” It contains a link to “Learn About the Divisions.”
  2. Click on “Air Quality.” At the bottom of the air quality page is a section on permitting.
  3. The “Online Access to Air Quality Permits” is the motherlode.  For active permits, you can see a map and a database of currently permitted facilities. (Note: Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties have their own local air programs; their data isn’t available through the DEQ site.)
  4. For air permit applications, click on “Active Air Permit Applications Status Reports.” You can download a .pdf or an Excel document. The pdf isn’t sortable, but good for a quick perusal. In my work, an Excel document is preferable because I can sort the information by city, county, name, etc. I can also map the facilities since the latitude and longitude are also listed. There are more than 240 pending air applications in North Carolina, as of today. As an example, I’ve excerpted the first 40-plus rows of the comprehensive status report below.
  5. Most of the header row descriptions are self-explanatory except for “Facility Classification.” The schedule is the type of permit. A Title V is the most complex type of air permit, reserved for major pollution sources. A “synthetic minor source” applies to facilities that could emit regulated pollutants like Title V sources. However, synthetic minor sources have agreed to restrictions to keep its emissions beneath that threshold. “Small” is just what it sounds like: minor polluters.
    It’s important to note, though, the cumulative impacts on neighborhoods were several facilities are located near one another. Four “small” pollution sources could add up to one large source, which is why it’s important to view these facilities on a map.
  6. Other odds and ends: When you see TV-501 (b)(2), that refers to the section within the air quality rules. Here’s that rabbit hole. Under “Permit Application Type,” a greenfield permit is another name for construction and operation.

I check the database about three times a week, to see if any there have been updates to the facilities I’m monitoring. Now you know — happy sleuthing!

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.