By Benita M. Dodd
Good news certainly is proving to be no news now that metro Atlanta’s 2003 ozone season has ended. After all, alarmists wouldn’t want residents to know that the 13-county metro area designated in non-attainment with federal air quality standards is doing quite well, thank you.
Air quality has improved despite increasingly strident warnings; despite regional foot-dragging on congestion relief and a massive population, industry and automobile increase since the first two emissions monitors were installed in January 1981. Even so, confused residents are left trying to decipher whether the air indoors or outdoors is the healthier choice during the May-September ozone monitoring season.
This year, the state Environmental Protection Division issued 18 color-coded smog day alerts, using radio, TV and overhead interstate signs that urged commuters to carpool and fill up after 6 p.m. The agency predicted 17 “Code Orange” days, when “prolonged outdoor exertion” was expected to be “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” and one “Code Red” day, when “prolonged outdoor exertion” was expected to be “unhealthy for all groups.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, warns that research indicates people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, so “for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.”
“In addition, people who may be exposed to indoor air pollutants for the longest periods of time are often those most susceptible to the effects of indoor air pollution,” the EPA adds. ”Such groups include the young, the elderly and the chronically ill, especially those suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular disease.”
It turns out that despite the 18 warnings this year, the metro area was out of attainment just once with the current one-hour federal air quality standard of 0.12 parts of ozone per million. That was June 24, a mostly sunny, stagnant day with daytime highs in the mid- to upper eighties.
Such great progress shouldn’t make Georgians drop their guard. Here’s a Code Red warning that residents should heed: Misguided efforts to meet air quality standards will cost taxpayers and industry time and money, and they won’t make the air any cleaner.
The overall trend shows how ozone levels are improving in Georgia. Last year, there were seven exceedances of the one-hour standard; in 2001 there were three. The drought years that began in 1998 were an aberration reflected in the region’s exceedances: After 11 exceedances in 1997, there were 22 in 1998; 21 in 1999 and 11 in 2000. Like last year, in 1996 there were just seven exceedances. Because none of those violations occurred during the Olympics, environmental activists trumpeted transit as a pollution solution in an ongoing campaign to demonize the automobile in the metro area.
Environmental officials expect metro Atlanta to achieve the one-hour standard next year for the first time since being designated in non-attainment in 1990 … maybe. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has decreed that an area is in attainment of the one-hour standard if it measures just one exceedance per year, or three over a three-year period. We’re doing great, but a hot summer could dash metro Atlanta’s hopes, EPD Air Protection Branch Chief Ron Methier told a clean air workshop for executives this week, adding, “Who knows what’s going to happen?”
Whether it’s 2004 or 2005 that the region comes into compliance with the one-hour standard, tougher standards are in the wings: tougher particulate matter standards (2.5 micrometers) and a tougher eight-hour ozone standard that limits ozone concentrations to 0.085 parts per million averaged over eight hours.
Another 10 counties are expected to be designated in non-attainment under the new rules. Those residents probably will also face costly annual auto emissions inspections. EPD officials are also concerned that when the metro area comes under the tougher “severe” non-attainment designation next year, federal reformulated gasoline (RFG) will be mandated. This will only exacerbate our problems, because RFG increases nitrogen oxide emissions that are the precursor to ozone. EPD officials expect 150-200 industrial sources may be impacted by the tougher emissions controls. Industries with emissions of 25 tons or more per year will now be declared “major” polluters, requiring special permits and stricter emissions controls and facing penalties for exceeding their permits. Diesel engines face retrofitting to reduce emissions and particulate matter. Companies that mulled locating here may go elsewhere.
The EPA is still finalizing the rules for the tougher ozone emissions standards, but it’s clear that the compliance effort will cost Georgia dearly, directly and indirectly. Georgians must demand that the effort is backed by the most cost-effective, workable solutions.
Regulating automobiles without making congestion relief a priority will do nothing to meet federal air quality standards. The contribution of metro-area automobiles to emissions will continue to diminish, thanks to technology, cleaner fuel and fleet turnover. But even if every resident in the non-attainment area ensured that their automobile’s engine was as pure as the driven snow, the large numbers of out-of-area vehicles that pass through – trucks, tractor-trailers, day-trippers and snowbirds – would contribute to ozone formation. And unless our roads are improved and congestion is relieved, these vehicles will continue to idle in our summertime traffic, increasing ozone emissions.
Likewise, throwing money at unworkable transit options won’t take automobiles off the road. The vast majority of area residents have shown their dislike of the limitations of mass transit, which is why it makes sense to select the most cost-effective methods and target it where it is wanted. Georgia’s industries must be able to meet the tougher standards without fear of new source review allegations, and cooperate with other industries through emissions trading options.
Yes, we live in a non-attainment area because of our lifestyle choices. But it has nothing to do with our love of the automobile or with “urban sprawl.” Our lifestyle choice is the South: sunny skies, green trees, warm weather and spacious suburbs. Don’t penalize us for it.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (October 17, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.
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