Originally created 06/05/99

Air quality plan would affect Augusta



ATLANTA -- Gas stations in Richmond, Clarke and 42 other counties in central and north Georgia would be required to sell low-sulfur fuel during the summer months beginning in 2003 to help reduce air pollution in the Atlanta area under a plan proposed by state environmental officials Friday.

The expanded low-sulfur fuel program, which now applies to only 25 counties immediately surrounding Georgia's capital, is part of a multipronged strategy to bring metro Atlanta into compliance with federal air pollution standards.

The region has been stripped of much of its federal highway funding until it meets those clean-air requirements.

While the plan unveiled by the state Environmental Protection Division Friday is aimed at cleaning Atlanta's air, the low-sulfur fuel requirement and proposed tougher standards on emissions from power plants reach well beyond the metro region.

"Air pollutants move on the wind," EPD Director Harold Reheis said during a news conference presenting the proposal. "We cannot solve the metro-Atlanta pollution problems by looking only at the sources of pollution in those 13 counties."

Among the key elements in the EPD plan are proposals to require:

The sale of low-sulfur gasoline during the May 1 to Sept. 30 ozone season, starting in 2003, in 44 counties from Dade in extreme northwest Georgia south to the Columbus area and southeast to Columbia and Richmond counties, including Clarke, Oconee, Madison and Oglethorpe counties.

Twenty-five counties in the Atlanta region -- including Jackson and Barrow -- were required to begin selling low-sulfur fuel May 1 of this year.

Stricter emissions standards for industries, primarily coal-burning power plants, in 13 metro-Atlanta counties and 34 surrounding counties, including Clarke, Oconee, Madison, Jackson and Barrow. The cost of meeting the new requirements could prompt Georgia Power Co. to seek a rate increase.

Annual vehicle emissions inspections in the 13-county metro-Atlanta area beginning in 2001. Current law only requires inspections every other year.

Mr. Reheis said the low-sulfur gasoline, which burns 7 percent cleaner than ordinary fuel, is expected to cost motorists an additional 1 cent to 3 cents per gallon, mostly because the EPD plan calls for developing an even lower sulfur content than currently is found in low-sulfur fuel.

While low-sulfur gas is being required primarily to cut vehicle emissions in the Atlanta area, its benefits will be felt throughout the affected counties, he said.

"If we have cleaner fuel sold in those areas, it will help make for cleaner air in those areas," he said.

Georgia Power spokesman Tal Wright estimated that the tighter controls on power plant emissions would cost the utility $350 million to $500 million. That could translate into a 2.7 percent rate increase, or $1.92 a month on the average residential customer bill.

Still, environmental activists said the plan stops short of what's needed to protect public health. Rita Kilpatrick, executive director of Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia, said the state should require the sale of low-sulfur fuel throughout the year.

She also criticized language in the plan that would allow two Georgia Power plants southeast of Atlanta to make improvements using "reasonably achievable control technology," while holding only the five plants northwest and southwest of the city to a specific standard.

"The fact that they're not wanting to set emission rates for some of these plants ... means they're not going far enough," Ms. Kilpatrick said.

But Mr. Wright said computer modeling shows the five plants that will have to meet a specific standard contribute far more to metro-Atlanta's air pollution than the other two facilities.

"There's no need spending hundreds of millions of dollars if you don't help fix the problem," he said.

Mr. Reheis said the EPD will release the full plan Monday, the start of a public comment period. The proposal will go before the Board of Natural Resources for final approval in mid-September.

Dave Williams is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.