ATLANTA - Most industrial air pollution in Georgia is the product of a small handful of highly profitable industries that can easily afford to meet tougher federal emission standards, according to a study released by environmental groups Thursday.
An industry group concludes in a competing report, however, that a proposal for stricter controls on soot- and smog-producing chemicals would cost manufacturers billions "with no significant benefits to public health."
The two studies give strikingly different views of a pending U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crackdown, proposed last November, calling for industries to reduce their production of ozone and particle omissions.
The rules were prompted by medical studies blaming air pollution for aggravating the effects of asthma, especially in children, and for hastening thousands of deaths each year from respiratory illness.
EPA estimates say the rules will cost power plants and other pollution sources $9 billion for upgraded equipment, though environmental groups contend that figure is greatly inflated.
Gov. Zell Miller and a bipartisan group of Georgia congressmen have written to the White House complaining that reducing the amount of allowable emissions as EPA proposes would hurt employers in the Augusta, Columbus and Chattanooga, Tenn., areas.
The air in those areas meets current EPA standards but, according to industry estimates, wouldn't pass the stricter proposed limits.
A study by the Environmental Working Group, a citizen alliance supporting the EPA initiative, ranks Georgia fourth highest in the nation in emissions of particulate matter - commonly known as soot - with power plants and paper companies as the leading culprits.
The largest producer in Georgia was The Southern Co., operator of 11 Georgia Power Co. and Savannah Electric Power Co. plants, with 25,800 tons per year - four times that of the next-largest polluter, Georgia-Pacific, the environmentalists' report said.
The authors used industries' self-reported data to come up with the rankings, compiled from state and federal regulatory files.
Environmental Working Group experts issued the study to counter manufacturers' arguments that automobiles, backyard barbecues and other individual sources account for more air pollution than industrial plants.
In fact, the authors said, industry produces 96 percent of the sulfur dioxide emissions measured nationally - the main component in acid rain and a byproduct of coal-burning power plants.
"Family fun like fireworks and barbecues contribute such a minuscule portion of the overall particulate load that no regulatory agency has ever even bothered to estimate the actual contribution they make to air pollution, much less contemplate regulations," said the report, which was issued jointly in Atlanta and Washington on Thursday.
The group criticized U.S. Reps. Jack Kingston, John Linder and Mac Collins, all Georgia Republicans, for signing an April 30 letter to the White House condemning the EPA rules, though their districts are among the most affected by industrial emissions.
In a separate study this week, a coalition of 500 manufacturers called the Air Quality Standards Coalition said EPA used "very weak" scientific arguments to arrive at the reduction targets.
If the EPA standards were adopted, even bakeries, dry cleaners and other small businesses would have to spend thousands retrofitting their equipment to screen out particle emissions, said the industry report.
The coalition also warned of more drastic crackdowns - including mandatory car-pooling and limits on aerosol products - that could result if the EPA proposals stand.