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Mecklenburg County looks to clear the air

CHARLOTTE -- Forget going green. With more than $1 million added to its operating funds last week, one Mecklenburg County agency plans to better its environment by going clear.

As in clear air, a goal of Mecklenburg County Air Quality that received a boost June 30 when American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds totaling $1,116,600 were awarded to expand the group's Grants to Replace Aging Diesel Engines project. And not just in Mecklenburg County. The new funds make it possible to expand from seven North Carolina counties to 13 counties in both Carolinas, reaching into York and as far south as Chester and Lancaster.

"GRADE will fund a greater range of eligible equipment, protect public health, create jobs and improve air quality," said Leslie Rhodes, mobile source program manager of the county air quality department.

Since beginning in 2007, the GRADE program is responsible for 43 non-road construction projects totaling $850,000. Those projects kept an estimated 255 tons of nitrous oxides out of local air. With the new funding, Rhodes said, the program expects a reduction of 166 tons of nitrogen oxides, 10 tons of particulate matter, 60 tons of carbon monoxide and 13 tons of hydrocarbons annually.

"It can make a pretty big impact," said Alan Giles, senior air quality specialist with the department.

The program works by taking older legacy diesel engines and retrofitting or replacing them with newer, cleaner engines or engine replacement. Beginning in August, anyone in the 13-county area wanting to apply for the program can fill out a one-page application during the 60-90 day process.

"It's really a cost effective way to get nitrous oxides out of the air," Giles said.

Now available even farther beyond Mecklenburg County borders, the program also is open to all kinds of diesel engine replacement projects, Giles said. The new funds allow the group to expand beyond just construction equipment to include all non-road diesels, stationary diesel generators, engines and pumps.

"It's a sub-grant," Giles said. "It's for private companies, governments, businesses."

All emissions calculations will be done by the air quality department. Funds from the National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program of the reinvestment and recovery act were allocated with President Obama's signature on the act Feb. 17. The Environmental Protection Agency Region 4, which includes the Carolinas, received 98 grant applications requesting more than $140 million for various emission projects.

Similar reinvestment and recovery act projects are taking place, like $509,000 awarded through the Environmental Protection Agency to the North Carolina Department of Public instruction to retrofit school buses with "emission reduction devices" or even replace some buses. Clean diesel efforts are credited with creating and retaining jobs, reducing premature deaths, asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments, reducing lost work days and lessening other health impacts.

"This grant is a great investment in environmental protection and will provide long-term economic benefits for North Carolina," said Stan Meiburg, EPA acting cdministrator in Atlanta. "This funding will go a long way in helping to bolster the economy and protect public health and the environment by creating green jobs that improve air quality."

Because both projects are part of the reinvestment and recovery act, online accounting of each dollar spent is available at recovery.gov. For more information on the local program, visit airquality.charmeck.org.

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