History of the Division of Air Quality

Thursday, April 2, 2020 - 2:47pm

Inception – How did the inception of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act give rise to the Division of Air Quality?  Well let’s find out....  

The origins of what came to be known as the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources date as far back as 1823, when the state sponsored a geological survey. Later, state research activities were expanded to include forestry, and in 1891 these and other varied functions were combined in a single agency, the North Carolina Geological Survey. The name was changed to the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey in 1905, and between then and its replacement by the Department of Conservation and Development in 1925 the agency took on still more responsibilities. From the outset, the Department of Conservation and Development was one of the more important divisions of North Carolina state government, and membership on its board was a widely sought political plum. 

In addition to geologymineral resources, and forestry, the divisions of the Department of Conservation and Development included marine fisheries, coastal resources, water resources, tourismadvertising, and state parks. By the time it was replaced by the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development with adoption of the Executive Organization Act of 1971, the new department included 18 different agencies, boards, and commissions. Other name changes followed, and by 1998 the state's catchall agency was known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In the early 2000s, the department worked to protect water quality, air quality, and public health through various programs designed to do everything from encouraging respect for the environment to assisting businesses, local governments, and the public with technical matters related to its divisions. 

Protection of the environment was enacted into law in § 143-211.  Declaration of public policy: 

NC Board of Water and Air Resources, October 13, 1970, Maggie Valley, NC -

“Development and implementation of programs to carry out this mandate have been vested in the Board of Water and Air Resources. The Board fully realizes the weight of the responsibility that has been placed upon it. This realization, together with the extremely grave situation now existing in regard to water and air resources, makes it incumbent upon the Board to clearly set forth its position and its policies.” 

“…No single agency of State government possess the power or resources to accomplish this task alone. The Board, therefore, calls upon the citizens of this State and upon the agencies of State and local government to enter into a cooperative effort to secure and preserve to people of this State the vital water and air resources.” 

Charge from EPA – The Clean Air Act designated implementation and enforcement powers to the states so that each one could put forth the most effective strategies to attain clean air given the diversity in industry and topography.  The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), defined in the Clean Air Act, are air quality standards for 6 major, or criteria, air pollutants that are ubiquitous across the US.  later, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 added regulations to control 189 toxic air pollutants.   

What we do and how we do it - The Division of Air Quality works with the state's citizens to protect and improve outdoor, or ambient, air quality in North Carolina for the health, benefit and economic well-being of all. To carry out this mission, the DAQ operates a statewide air quality monitoring network to measure the level of pollutants in the outdoor air, develops and implements plans to meet future air quality initiatives, assures compliance with air quality rules, and educates, informs and assists the public with regard to air quality issues. 

DAQ Successes – While a lot of the successes in NC’s clean air have risen from federal rules, North Carolina has been proactive in pursuing innovative approaches to clean air.   The most significant instrument was, and still is, the Clean Smoke Stacks Act of 2002.  This momentous piece of legislation came about through the collaboration of legislators, energy companies, and environmental groups who wanted to improve the visibility in the mountains and from other scenic vistas in North Carolina that was being ruined by air pollution. The Clean Smokestacks Act required substantial actual emission reductions from coal-fired plants. This effort led to a significant reduction in ozone levels, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Combined with other federal and state regulations like stricter standards for new cars and trucks, and cleaner gasoline and diesel fuels, high ozone-level days have become a much rarer occurrence in NC.   The CSA worked!  Under the act, North Carolina's utilities reduced actual emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from 245,000 tons in 1998 to 56,000 tons by 2009 (77% reduction). Utilities reduced actual sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from 489,000 tons in 1998 to 250,000 tons by 2009 (49% reduction) and 130,000 tons by 2013 (73% reduction).  The CSA also had many co-benefits including significant reductions in particulate matter, mercury and CO2 as inefficient coal fired units were retired and replaced with cleaner natural gas units. As a former Secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality Bill Ross noted -  

“The air got cleaner, people’s health got better, and the sky got bluer.” 

Teachers and students, or anyone, in North Carolina can learn more about the clean smokestacks act through our It’s Our Air curriculum or click the video link below, or check out this Vimeo



Health Related Success - In a study published in 2014 by Kravchenko et. al., researchers found that there were dramatic decreases in respiratory related deaths correlate to improved air quality.  The study noted “decline in emphysema deaths was associated with decreasing levels of SO2 and CO in the air, decline in asthma deaths–with lower SO2, CO, and PM10 levels, and decline in pneumonia deaths–with lower levels of SO2.”  The figures below show data for air pollution decreases and respiratory related death decreases respectively.


Researchers concluded that “significant associations were observed between decreasing death rates of emphysema, asthma, and pneumonia and decreases in levels of ambient air pollutants in North Carolina.” 

Attainment - The entire state of North Carolina is meeting all of the air quality standards, called National Ambient Air Quality Standards, dictated by the Environmental Protection Agency.  By meeting all of the standards, North Carolina is considered “in attainment”.  Shown below are statewide maps for ozone and particulate matter, two of the most prevalent air pollutants in North Carolina.