Efforts to overturn new federal air quality standards might delay -- but won't stop -- Augusta's pending designation as a city with polluted air, Georgia's environmental chief predicted Thursday.
"It may be held up, even for several years, but I believe it will happen," said Harold Reheis, director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened standards for clean air, citing new evidence that ozone levels within earlier standards caused or aggravated a variety of health problems.
Augusta's air met earlier standards, but it has flunked the new criteria 10 times so far this summer.
Although a lawsuit by national industry and business groups opposed to the new ozone standards won a preliminary round in federal court, Mr. Reheis believes EPA's new standards ultimately will prevail.
"I don't know if that standard will stand up in the long run," he told an audience at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. "But if I were betting, I suspect it will."
Were it not for the legal challenge that has postponed enforcement, Augusta would certainly be designated as a "non-attainment zone" by next July, Mr. Reheis said.
Once designated as a non-attainment zone, the city would face restrictions on vehicle emissions, industrial discharges and eligibility for federal transportation dollars.
Augusta's best course of action is to initiate efforts to reduce ozone -- caused primarily from automobile exhaust and industrial emissions, Mr. Reheis said.
More studies are also needed to refine data that will be used to determine how much of metro Augusta flunks clean air standards, he added.
"EPD hasn't done nearly enough studies to determine what needs to be done," he said, noting that current data relies heavily on widely spaced air monitors.
Currently, EPD is stretched thin and burdened with trying to regulate environmental quality amidst the growth and sprawl of metro Atlanta.
"Metro Atlanta is absolutely our first priority," he said. "It has to be: it has the worst problems."
Augusta, in the meantime, has already initiated efforts to gather more air quality data.
Augusta -- along with the cities of Macon and Columbus -- has asked Gov. Roy Barnes to fund a detailed study to be undertaken by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Urban and Regional Ecology.
Mr. Reheis predicts tighter environmental standards will become more and more common in the future -- and will enjoy broad public support from people who demand a clean environment.
"Environmental quality has become a core American value -- right up there with freedom and liberty," he said. "And I don"t think that's going to change."