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Two decades ago, a small group of Sierra Club members formed Carolina's Clean Air Coalition to improve air quality for Mecklenburg County residents. Since then, both the mission and geographic scope have expanded dramatically. This fall, June Blotnick, the organization’s first and only executive director, steps down after 17 years at the helm. I spoke with Blotnick about CleanAireNC’s accomplishments, challenges and what’s next for her and the organization.
CPEA: Tell me about the organization’s beginnings and its many iterations over the years.
In the early 2000s, there was a lot of urban sprawl and our air quality was so bad. They were really involved in fighting urban sprawl, because of the pollution from cars. They even [unsuccessfully] opposed Northlake mall! They wanted the county to consider a formalized environmental assessment policy for all major developments not already covered by federal and state regulations with a focus on air quality.
At some point, the city started promoting infill housing and development with the transit plan with the light rail and plans for future light rail and other kinds of mass transit. They centered development around those transit corridors so that people could live near the transit stop. Over the years, they have made some progress trying to reverse urban sprawl.
CPEA: That’s a good thing but it’s also why so many people of color have been displaced from certain communities. Is there any middle ground between sprawl and gentrification?
Blotnick: There should be. Gentrification is currently done in a way that leaves no room for the current residents to stay there, protect their property values and afford to pay their taxes, as well as having room for tenants and renters. I worked with the Housing Partnership in Genesis Park in the mid-90s. They were able to upgrade housing, transition people into home ownership, and come up with other programs to protect the value of the property for those folks. And it's still a majority Black community with subsidies and the focus is on keeping people in their homes.
CPEA: How did you move from a local air quality nonprofit to a statewide one with 10 employees focused on so many issues, including environmental justice?
Blotnick: One of our early campaigns was fighting Duke Energy’s expansion of a coal fired power plant five miles west of Charlotte. We were part of a statewide coalition and a multi-year campaign. That happened simultaneously with organizing the medical advocacy team in Charlotte. It became clear that if we were going to convince people that air pollution is dangerous and causes premature deaths, we needed the health sector behind us. So we organized some health professionals in Charlotte and around the state. Once we took that program statewide we transitioned into a statewide organization
CPEA: What are some of the organization’s successes since it was formed 20 years ago?
Our Clear the Air for Kids program advocated for children's health by getting cleaner school buses. We were able to move beyond diesel school busses and that really connected us with health professionals and scientists. We were successful in getting the state legislature to allocate funds to school systems. We started an air quality flag program with the Mecklenburg County Health Department to use air quality flags to alert people to the day’s air quality and set up ozone gardens to teach school kids about the impact of air pollution on plants.
On the energy side, we helped activate the citizenry against fossil fuels and around climate change issues. We got conversations going about changing the way we generate electricity and really put solar on the map here in North Carolina. When we heard that CATS was thinking about transitioning to natural gas, we went into action and they ultimately decided to change to electric buses. We made sure those buses were used in communities of color because of the health inequities.
CPEA: So, what’s next for you when you retire this fall?
Blotnick: I like to say I’m stepping down, not retiring. I will probably do some consulting part-time. A lot of self-care, fun and family.