Atlanta’s Air Quality is Improved, but Not Enough to Ease Regulatory Standards
'US EPA and Georgia EPD should focus on making sure Atlanta is prepared to meet the next level of air pollution requirements, rather than spending time on the paperwork exercise for the 1997 standard.'
Breathing smog is like getting a sunburn on your lungs. It inflames your airways, making it more difficult to breathe. Smog is especially tough on kids, who pound-for-pound breathe more air in their developing lungs than adults. For many years, smog was thought to just impact people who already had respiratory conditions, but more recent studies have shown that it can cause respiratory disease and impair lung function in otherwise healthy people. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is charged with establishing safe levels of ambient air quality for a variety of pollutants, and revisit them periodically to make sure they are consistent with the latest scientific research about what levels of those pollutants are harmful to public health.
Smog is more formally known as ground-level ozone. It forms when nitrogen oxide, which come from burning fossil fuels and volatile organic compounds, which come from dry cleaners, paint, and surprisingly, trees, come together in the presence of heat or sunlight. Because Metro Atlantans burn a lot of gasoline, diesel, coal and natural gas, we are blessed with a lot of trees, and we are affectionately known as Hotlanta, we have all the ingredients needed for a good recipe of smog.
In fact, Atlanta has struggled to meet federal health-based air quality standards for ground-level ozone since they were first established in 1991. While we have never had problems as serious as Beijing, our air quality was a major concern for the 1996 Olympics. Atlanta’s Olympic organizers took great measures to reduce the amount of traffic downtown, encouraging people who didn’t need to be downtown to not commute or take transit. Studies showed that these efforts worked:
- Traffic was down 22 percent
- Ozone concentrations went down 28 percent
- Emergency room trips for asthma attacks went down 42 percent
So we know that reducing emissions of air pollution improves air quality and public health.
However, in 1999, Atlanta had our worst summer on record for air pollution. Air pollution monitors showed violations 69 out of the 150 days of ozone season. You can check out the state’s data here. The State of Georgia complex on Confederate Avenue has one of the state's many ozone monitors, and, in fact, the one that still routinely registers the highest levels of ozone.
You might remember that Sierra Club sued the state and the EPA in the late 1990s and Atlanta’s federal highway money was cut off. And that’s when we started getting serious about reducing our air pollution emissions in metro Atlanta. Programs like the annual vehicle inspection were implemented, lower pollution gasoline was brought to the metro area, and rules were established for installing controls at Georgia Power’s Atlanta-area coal-fired plants. Also established was a program that requires new sources of air pollution to find an existing source of air pollution who will reduce their emissions to make room for them without making our air quality worse.
These programs have resulted in great progress and there are far fewer days we violate the federal standards. However, the latest science has shown that even lower levels of ground-level ozone are more harmful than previously thought. In 1997, the EPA updated the ozone standard from a 1-hour standard of 120 parts per billion to an 8-hour standard of 80 parts per billion, because researchers had discovered that lower levels of ozone over longer periods of time were harmful. In 2008, the Bush Administration lowered that limit to 75 parts per billion, but the Obama Administration withdrew it upon taking office because it wasn’t protective enough. Under intense political pressure before the 2010 midterm elections, the EPA did not finalize the new standard. The range that scientists said was appropriate was somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion.
Meeting the 1997 federal air quality standard for ozone requires that the three-year average of the fourth-highest reading of an ozone monitor is below 85 parts per billion. Because emissions from cars and power plants were down in 2009 due to the recession, and we had an unusually cold and wet summer, levels from that year drag down the average.
The EPA is proposing to designate Atlanta in “attainment” for the 1997 standard based on the data from 2008-2010. The trick is that they have to demonstrate that the air quality is better because of “real, permanent and enforceable” reductions in air pollution. You can see from the attached chart that they weren’t because levels have gone back up in recent years. And, at our backyard monitor at Confederate Avenue, if levels in 2013 are as high as they were in 2012, we will be back out of attainment for a standard that is over 15 years old.
The EPA and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division should focus on making sure Atlanta is prepared to meet the next level of air pollution requirements, rather than spending time on the paperwork exercise for the 1997 standard. Our kids deserve clean air!
Ms. Kiernan, a resident of Ormewood Park, is the director of the Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter.