Environmental groups fear that Atlanta’s air quality is worsening

Published 4:06 pm Wednesday, August 2, 2006

State environment officials concede that Atlanta has failed to meet the federal government’s tough new smog standards, a development that has green groups worried that the city will fail to meet another looming deadline.

The dry, hot summer contributed to the city’s failure to meet next year’s deadline to reduce ozone emissions, said Heather Abrams, the chief of the state Environmental Protection Division’s air protection department.

The news, while not a surprise to local officials, offsets a recent round of encouraging reports about the city’s air quality.

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Atlanta boasted its cleanest air in more than 20 years in May 2005. And the city was conspicuously absent in the latest American Lung Association list of the 25 cities with the worst ground-level ozone stats.

Cleaner gasoline, stricter vehicle inspection programs and more controls on coal-fired power plants throughout the South have helped clean up Atlanta’s air and spurred some progress in meeting the Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Officials credit those results to their pursuit of immediate solutions — the “low hanging fruit,” Abrams said.

Environmental advocates said if the city wants to meet the 2010 EPA standards, it must launch a more ambitious campaign to combat air pollution.

“The truth is, we’ve done all the easy stuff. But it’s not enough for Atlanta. We’ve got to start doing things that are more difficult. We think that means we have to start providing alternatives to the single passenger commute that dominates transportation around here,” said Jim Grode, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

In April, the center helped launch the Georgia Air Coalition, a group of consumer and environmental groups that hopes to target pollution from smokestacks and auto emissions, two of the state’s main sources of pollution.

It also works to remind Georgians that ozone is more than a colorless gas that blurs the skies, but also a health hazard that causes shortness of breath, wheezing and even nausea when inhaled.

The EPA said the city has made great strides in improving its air quality over the past 15 years, but there’s still room for improvement.

“It has it’s challenges because it’s a very vibrant city that has growth,” said Carol Kemker, the deputy director of the EPA’s Air Division in the Southeast. “It’s trying to plan its growth and air quality at the same time.”

She mentioned innovative programs, such as the Clean Air Campaign, which parses out incentives to persuade Atlanta road warriors to stay off the streets. The campaign’s Cash for Commuters program pays out $3 per day, up to $180 over three months, to anyone who promises not to drive to or from work. The group claims to take 42 million trips off Atlanta’s streets each year, along with 1,800 tons of air pollution.

The city’s air will continue to improve as the government offers businesses incentives — not mandates — to encourage commute alternatives, said Kevin Green, the vice president of environmental affairs for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Abrams vowed the state won’t wait until the EPA declares it has missed the deadline to tackle the city’s pressing air problem. She said her department is targeting ways to reduce emissions at Atlanta’s two rail yards, industrial centers and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“We’re still working aggressively. We don’t need the formal designation to do what we need to do,” she said. “There will be more to come.”

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