Richmond County is still Georgia's most polluted community -- at least on paper.
The newest Toxic Release Inventory, published by Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, ranks Richmond County first among 159 counties in the amount of toxic chemicals released into air, land or water.
But next year, things will change, said Bert Langley, EPD's emergency response program manager.
It's not that Augusta's air or water will be any cleaner, he said. But a new law adding emissions from coal-fired power plants to the annual study will unquestionably place other counties in the top rankings.
"It'll change the entire scope of the report, including rankings," he said. "Augusta won't be anywhere near the top."
Although it's only on paper, shedding the distinction of being Georgia's "top polluter" will be welcome news, said Richmond County Emergency Management Director Pam Tucker.
"Nobody likes to be No. 1 on the overall list of polluters, and no company wants to be at the top of the list. So a lot of it's perception," she said.
Although Richmond County industries released almost 10.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 1997 -- the reporting year for the newest report -- many companies are working diligently to reduce emissions.
"The main thing for people to remember is, industries work hard to reduce emissions every year, and we don't want our industries to shut down," Mrs. Tucker said.
The dubious distinction of being ranked first or second (behind Chatham County) has haunted Richmond County since 1994 because of Augusta's two major producers of nitrates: PCS Nitrogen and DSM Chemicals.
Nitrates threaten aquatic ecosystems because they are converted to nitrogen and phosphorus, which contribute to low oxygen levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires nitrate reporting in TRI studies.
DSM and PCS discharge millions of pounds of nitrates into the Savannah River each year through permitted programs monitored by EPD, Dr. Langley said.
But the discharges aren't necessarily toxic.
"Nitrates were added to the TRI a few years ago and blew everything out of proportion," he said. "They're almost always emitted through wastewater discharges that have gone on for many, many years."
Nitrates, as a chemical class -- and in their pure form -- are indeed toxic, he said. "But at the levels at which it's emitted or discharged into waters like the Savannah River in Augusta, it's basically fertilizer."
The Fertilizer Institute, a trade association, lobbied for years to remove nitrates from TRI reporting requirements. But after a long court battle, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling last fall ended the case in EPA's favor.
"It's kind of frustrating, and we think we're right, but we've pretty much come to the end of the road," said Ron Phillips, vice president for public affairs for The Fertilizer Institute.
Had the institute succeeded at removing nitrates from the TRI, the change would have removed Augusta from the top of the list a long time ago, said Bill Walls, environmental manager for PCS Nitrogen in Augusta.
"Like all industries, we try to reduce each year, year after year," Mr. Walls said. Emissions from PCS, for example, dropped from 2.8 million pounds in 1991 to 1.9 million pounds last year -- a 30 percent drop.
"We've always been looked at because of nitrates, and next year, the coal-fired utilities will have to start reporting, and Richmond County won't be anywhere near the top of the list," he said.
Although the Toxic Release Inventory is useful for focusing public scrutiny on industrial pollution -- which in turn spurs industry to reduce emissions -- the document includes only a fraction of the 73,000 chemicals used commercially in the United States, said Robert Pregulman of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Compounds not appearing in the report include dioxins, mercury and lead, he said. The research group has lobbied to have more chemicals included in TRI documents.