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Furniture outfit may be hiring; EPA’s air standards a target, state cabinet member says

SALISBURY — Ashley Furniture Industries is considering adding thousands of jobs at the company’s new plant in Davie County, and North Carolina likely will file suit next week against the Environmental Protection Agency, according to John Skvarla, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
During a speech to the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Skvarla talked more about economic development and politics than the environment.
He said Ashley Furniture has been so pleased with the state’s business-friendly attitude ushered in by the McCrory administration that the company may expand its plant in Advance. Prior to Gov. Pat McCrory’s election, Ashley spent $1 million on nine applications trying to obtain permits to begin construction, Skvarla said.
The company has committed to employ 550 people at full production. Skvarla said Chief Executive Todd Wanek told him the company plans to expand the Davie plant to 3 million square feet and may hire a total of 4,000 employees.
The company previously announced plans to build a 3.8 million-square-foot furniture manufacturing and distributing facility in Davie — the world’s largest — including 1.7 million square feet of existing space plus 2 million square feet of new construction in two phases.
But Skvarla’s comments about more jobs coming to the plant surprised Terry Bralley, executive director for the Davie County Economic Development Commission.
“We would be excited,” said Bralley, who did not attend the speech. “I don’t have anything that indicates that to me.”
The plant construction is a year behind schedule, and Ashley Furniture recently announced it will buy a 260,000-square-foot building in Mississippi to make up for delays that were due largely to rain and the discovery of four acres of wetlands.
Bralley said Skvarla was “very helpful” to Ashley after the wetlands discovery.
Skvarla mentioned plans to sue the EPA after Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development Commission, said while state environmental officials are “great to work with,” federal regulations ran off a $150 million project considering Rowan.
Skvarla responded by saying politics come into play at the EPA.
“The EPA is being very difficult to North Carolina,” he said. “We are on the verge of initiating a lawsuit on air quality standards against the EPA.”
Skvarla, a lawyer, accused the agency of applying “arbitrary and capricious standards” in North Carolina and said a group of states from the South and Midwest will band together against the EPA and states in the Northeast.
The EPA is trying to limit North Carolina’s growth, Skvarla said.
“We are pushing back but doing it in the courts,” he said. “We have no other choice.”
Until Republicans control the U.S. Senate and White House, nothing with change at the EPA, Skvarla said.
The revelation comes after eight Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states earlier this month asked the EPA to take action against North Carolina and eight other upwind states.
Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont filed a petition, claiming they are being harmed by air pollution carried by prevailing winds from North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Skvarla told the chamber of commerce that North Carolina has spent $5 billion in five years to improve air quality and has made strides in reducing air pollution.
Skvarla declined to comment further on the potential lawsuit after the chamber event.
During his talk, he praised Jason Walser, executive director for the LandTrust for Central North Carolina in Salisbury, as “genuinely and sincerely committed to the environment.” He contrasted Walser’s work against the Southern Environmental Law Center, which Skvarla is feuding with over a replacement for the Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks.
Skvarla also sang the praises of Daimler, which owns the Freightliner truck manufacturing plant in Cleveland. Skvarla was at the plant earlier this week to award Daimler one of 16 Environmental Steward awards given by his department.
He said the Freightliner plant has reduced energy costs by 48 percent, recycles wastewater and sends zero waste to the landfill.
“And it makes profits, proudly,” he said.
The department has not been promoting Daimler and other environmentally sound companies, Skvarla said.
“We are going to start making it a high priority to profile and promote these companies and let people know that places like Rowan County are supportive and places you should bring 3,000 jobs,” he said. “We have the kind of talent and workforce that can support those kinds of initiatives.”
Skvarla said DENR has been considered the No. 1 obstacle to growth in North Carolina for years.
“We are going to become a service organization,” he said. “Our job, because we know the rules and regulations better than anyone, is to help you through the maze.”
When asked by a woman who said her family drinks well water about laws that eased regulations on garbage trucks and landfills, Skvarla said he had a “eureka moment” as he pondered the contaminated wells in the state.
North Carolina will never have enough money to clean up all the wells, he said. So property owners now can pay $100 for higher-level water testing through local health departments and then purchase filters, which he said are no more expensive than a car repair, to clean the water before drinking.
“Everybody thinks the government must solve this,” Skvarla said.
The state has provided a cost-effective solution, he said, but putting the solution in place is “your individual responsibility.”

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