After months of fretting over the consequences of flunking new federal standards for clean air, Augusta officials can breathe a sigh of relief.
At least for now.
"It looks like things are on hold, especially for Augusta," said Ron Methier, air quality chief for Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.
During several recent visits to Augusta, Mr. Methier advised city officials to brace for the consequences of being lumped with Atlanta and other air pollution-plagued cities that fail the federal Clean Air Act.
But industries that sued the Environmental Protection Agency about claims the new standards were too strict won an appeals court victory last week, throwing out the new standard for ozone.
The ozone standard was adopted by EPA last year after studies showed the odorless gas could cause dangerous health problems under the old levels.
In Augusta, the air rarely violated the old standards. But under the new method of measuring air pollution, Augusta would fall from compliance, facing designation as a "nonattainment zone" similar to smog-ridden Atlanta.
Mr. Methier said EPD will suspend enforcement of the new standards for Augusta pending more developments in the lawsuit against EPA.
"I have read the case," he said. "We're still reading it and digesting it. Things are on hold, at least for now, but it's premature at this point to say exactly what's going to happen."
Augusta Mayor Bob Young said local efforts to reduce air pollution likely will continue as they have for several months, but without the strict regulatory deadline looming.
"I don't believe we can use this to say the air is as good as it's going to get in Augusta," he said. "We should still take steps to reduce air pollution."
He added, however, that not having to fear the sanctions of not meeting clean-air standards will be a welcome relief.
Cities designated as nonattainment zones face the potential for vehicle emissions controls, industrial recruitment limitations and strict stipulations attached to transportation dollars.
In addition to Augusta-Richmond County, Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties in South Carolina -- and Columbia and McDuffie counties in Georgia -- have the potential to be lumped into a nonattainment zone.
The EPA plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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