Originally created 02/16/99

Poor air quality puts highway funds in danger



MACON, Ga. -- Macon has failed to meet federal air quality standards for the last two years, placing the middle Georgia city's federal highway funds in jeopardy.

Macon has been in violation of the federal Clean Air Act since the state Environmental Protection Division began monitoring air quality in 1997 in the city, about 80 miles south of Atlanta.

"We can take the hard-nosed stance that it ain't our fault," said Bibb County Commission chairman Larry Justice, who is also the chairman of the Macon Area Transportation Study.

"That's not going to solve the problem. We're going to have to start working with the EPD," he said. "We need to try to get in there and be proactive to see what can be done ... but nobody has much knowledge about what this is all about -- even about how Macon has been out of compliance."

Macon could have another problem if Gov. Roy Barnes' transportation plan gets approved by the Legislature. His plan calls for a transportation authority that would supercede the authority of local and county governments in areas of transportation planning.

The plan is aimed at the Atlanta area, which also is in violation of the Clean Air Act, but would also oversee Macon, Augusta or Savannah if those cities fell out of clean air compliance. Only Savannah is currently in compliance, according to the EPD.

Macon was out of compliance for 12 days in 1997 and 18 days last year for ozone, said the EPD, which monitors during the summer's peak ozone-producing months.

The EPD expects to be able to determine how much ozone was created by motor vehicles and how much by area industry, which includes three power plants.

If the city is out of compliance again, any road-building projects must be part of an overall pollution-reducing plan before qualifying for federal funds.

"We are giving (Macon) a very strong message," said Ron Methier, chie of the EPD's air protection branch. "Macon is going to be non-attainment ... all indications are that, even with a very clean summer, Macon will not meet the federal clean-air standards."

Any plan to improve Macon's air should include tighter controls on the area's power plants, and not consumers, said members of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an environmental lobbyist group.

"The city of Macon needs to be pressuring Gov. Barnes and the Georgia congressional delegation to (end the power-plant exemption)," said USPIRG's Georgia energy associate Jennifer Giegerich.

Spreading pollution

Facts about ozone, the most common air pollutant and the cause of Atlanta and Macon being out of compliance with federal clean air standards:

Cause: Hydrocarbons, which are produced by combustion engines and power plants, are heated by ultraviolet rays from the sun to create the invisible gas.

Effects: Ozone, which at high elevations protects the atomosphere from the sun's rays, is a powerful lung irritant and can cause extreme breathing problems for children, asthmatics and the elderly.

Cities in Georgia out of compliance: Atlanta, Augusta, Macon.