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Published: Tuesday, November 7, 2000 12:11 a.m. EST

New EPA rules threaten to delay road projects

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The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE -- More than $1 billion in highway construction funds for North Carolina might be delayed if the state doesn't meet new clean- air standards.

The new clean-air standards are more strict than current ones. Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can stop new road projects that could worsen pollution.

"It's a very big hammer," said Janet D'Ignazio, chief planning and environmental officer with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

D'Ignazio's office is working with officials in major North Carolina cities, as well as the legislature, to find ways to ensure that new projects won't worsen air quality.

The new rules could affect more than 100 projects across the state, mostly in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham, Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill.

The road projects at risk of being delayed are those scheduled to start after summer 2002, according to David Hyder of the state Department of Transportation.

Under the new clean-air standards, planners must look ahead two decades to estimate the effect on air quality of road projects. The projections are based on a city's growth and the miles its citizens drive.

The EPA still is working out the details of how cities will meet the new standards, so it's impossible to know whether cities can meet them, Hyder said.

Other states already have had serious problems balancing road construction and the Clean Air Act, which was approved 30 years ago. EPA said the law prevents 15,000 premature deaths from respiratory illnesses each year.

Atlanta had 61 projects worth $700 million halted in January 1998 because of poor air. The city committed to put 40 percent of its transportation money into mass transit to clear the hurdle.

Houston has proposed meeting the federal rules by lowering speed limits and, starting in 2005, banning the use of earth-moving equipment, lawn mowers and leaf-blowers before noon.

The biggest causes of ozone pollution in North Carolina are utility power plants, cars and trucks, heavy construction equipment, and smokestack industries, said Brock Nicholson, the state's air quality planning chief.

Hyder said the state is looking not only at highways to cut pollution but at more stringent requirements for power plants and heavy construction equipment.

Other efforts include new requirements for buses to use cleaner-burning fuel, more state money for trains and buses, and encouraging businesses to allow more employees to work at home.

The legislature already has passed a law requiring the statewide sale of cleaner, low-sulfur gasoline by 2004. What North Carolina has not done is make major changes in its road-building plans. Most of its transportation dollars still go to widening roads or building new ones.

Under the law, even rural areas are feeling the pollution pinch that had been predominantly an urban problem. North Carolina is expanding the number of counties requiring tailpipe emission tests from nine to 48 by 2006.

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