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Friday, September 28, 2007

EPA: Smog levels in Eastern U.S. down; Georgia? Not so much.

When it comes to Atlanta's air quality, no news is bad news, as is the case with Thursday's announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that smog levels in the Eastern United States during the summertime — known as "ozone season" — dropped last year. The results are part of a seasonal program called the NOx Budget Program started by the Clinton administration and which continues under President Bush to curb emissions by industries.

That's great news for everyone, but here's the kicker: Georgia was the only state among those measured that showed no change. Nothing. Maybe it had to do with our state, according to the report, not even participating in the program.

(Note: As if New Orleans hasn't been hit hard enough, according to the data, the area's air quality actually got worse.)

The report said air quality in the Eastern U.S. has improved — summertime emissions in 2006 were 7 percent lower than they were in 2005, 60 percent lower than in 2000, and 74 percent lower than in 1990 — and by 2015, as long as the industries continue to participate in the program, Atlanta should be in the clear. Now that's not sparkling clean in-the-clear — just below federal standards for smog levels.

But as Frank O'Donnell, president of advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said, that's not low enough:

We have definitely seen improvements in air quality in the Eastern U.S. because of the Clinton administration initiative, which – by the way – was vehemently opposed by the Edison Electric Institute and many of the big power companies like American Electric Power, as well as by some states including West Virginia and Michigan. (Isn’t it interesting to note how these companies now like to brag about how much they’ve cleaned up under a program they fought against?) This shows quite dramatically that if we clean up pollution at the source, breathers will reap the benefits of cleaner air. However, we have not solved the smog problem – not by a long shot. Our unofficial statistics for this year show that no fewer than 39 states plus the District of Columbia have still experienced pollution levels above the current national smog standard, set in 1997. See list below.

Yes, Georgia's on that list. We've violated the federal smog standard this year more times than Pete Doherty's been arrested — in his entire life. The fear among many advocacy groups is that the federal standard will simply become a line that the most egregious of violators can toe, rather than a stepping stone to clean air. O'Donnell's group is one of many pushing for even lower smog standards after scientific research has concluded that smog levels — even at the federal standards — pose a substantial health risk. Also, Georgia did not comply with the program this summer. From the EPA report (with my added emphasis):

States not previously in the NOx Budget Program include Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. These states began compliance on May 31, 2004, one month into the normal ozone season. The affected portions of Missouri and Georgia were required to comply with the NOx SIP call as of May 1, 2007. Missouri joined the trading program on schedule.

A group in Georgia submitted a petition to reconsider the state’s inclusion in the NOx SIP Call because the areas affected by sources in Georgia have been recently redesignated as attainment areas. On June 8, 2007, EPA published a Federal Register notice proposing to agree with the petition to remove the NOx SIP Call requirements for Georgia. If finalized, Georgia will no longer be subject to the NOx SIP Call. Georgia will not participate in the NBP in 2007.

I'd like to know what group that was. And just how much — now that Georgia has finally reached "attainment status" — of business-as-before went on this year? Let's hope this isn't like losing 100 pounds and then deciding to dine every night at Golden Corral.

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