Tar Heel Tattler - June 2007

Toyota fears there’s something in the air
- Irwin Speizer

Davidson County Manager Robert Hyatt was having a bad-air day, but nobody told him. On Feb. 27, the county lost out on a $1.3 billion factory that will build Toyota sport utility vehicles. It went to Tupelo, Miss., where the Japanese automaker got incentives worth close to $300 million — three times what North Carolina offered. Two months later, Hyatt discovered that despite the state’s favorable business climate, some companies don’t like the atmosphere.

Davidson is one of three counties in the state — Catawba and Guilford are the others — that exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for air-particle pollution. That can delay permits for a major project such as an automobile plant and force companies to buy costly extra equipment to reduce air emissions. “We knew there was an air-quality issue, but we never knew it factored into the Toyota decision,” Hyatt says.

It wasn’t until after Toyota picked Tupelo that details about the state’s recruitment effort trickled out. A site-selection consultant had warned the Commerce Department that Davidson would be a hard sell because of its air quality. “I have no doubt it is one of the factors,” says Tom Mather, spokesman for the state Division of Air Quality. “Whether you could call it the knockout punch, I don’t know. That might be a stretch.”

Why mostly rural Davidson is on the air-particle pollution list, while urban counties such as Mecklenburg and Wake aren’t, has perplexed local officials for years. The county has no major metro area, and many of its furniture factories have closed. Interstate 85 is often clogged with diesel trucks, a known source of particle pollution, but that alone shouldn’t be enough to push it above the EPA limits.

Theories abound. Maybe wind carries pollution from Charlotte. But if that were all it took, why wasn’t Cabarrus County, which lies between the Queen City and Davidson County, on the list? Some have joked that the culprit might be the wood-burning pits of its famed barbecue restaurants. Mather says coal-fired power plants upwind in neighboring counties are a likely source, spewing sulfur dioxide from the smokestacks. State law requiring scrubbers that remove the sulfur dioxide should put Davidson’s air in compliance with current EPA standards by 2009.

But EPA rules could change by then, so the county’s cleaner air might still be too dirty. A tougher EPA standard also could push other counties onto the list. If that happens, Hyatt might have more bad-air days, but at least he would have more company in his misery.