Originally created 09/12/99

Polluted air may keep businesses from Augusta



The faint, summer haze lingering on Augusta's horizon is nothing new.

Yet the relatively new stigma of a city with polluted air is taking a toll on Augusta's image, according to those working to lure new industry.

The problem is part perception and part reality. Augusta's air is no more polluted than in past years, but it no longer meets the newly revised standards of the federal Clean Air Act.

Ozone -- the noxious gas cooked up by automobile exhaust and sunlight -- was traditionally measured on an hourly standard that could not exceed 0.120 parts per million. Augusta was almost always in compliance.

Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new rule, ozone is measured in eight-hour averages that cannot exceed 0.08 parts per million.

And Augusta often fails.

The stigma of possibly being declared a nonattainment zone in terms of Clean Air Act compliance worries those involved with promoting the area.

"If we are declared nonattainment, it could have a definite impact on our ability to attract new industry," said Scott MacGregor, vice president for community development for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

"Places with lax rules on environmental issues tend to draw business away from other areas," he said. "You can be on the wrong list, as far as restrictions, and they can automatically rule you out."

Ron Methier, air quality chief for Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, said air pollution is just one factor that can affect efforts to recruit new industries.

"From what I'm hearing, water supply for Augusta may be more critical than other issues," he said. "If a big industrial user who needed a whole lot of water wanted to come in, that could be really difficult."

Although the Savannah River, backed up by three major reservoirs upstream, is a reliable water supply, it isn't endless.

"With air, as long as we can demonstrate we can keep it as clean as it needs to be, we can permit new industry in an intensively industrialized area," he said. "But with water, its a definable resource, and once it's used up, it's used up."

Mr. Methier said Augusta is still operating under the same environmental regulations as in past years in terms of air quality. "But if the area becomes a nonattainment site for ozone, it might get a little tougher."

Although EPA's new ozone standard is being challenged in court, EPD still must decide later this year which cities will be recommended for nonattainment zones like metro Atlanta.

That potential cloud on the horizon is what frightens economic development interests who fear even the mere possibility of non-attainment will frighten away new prospects.

Mr. Methier acknowledged the possibility.

"Industry that's considering locating there, or planning investments to existing plants there, would have to be concerned about the future rules," he said. "But a myriad of factors go into a business decision, and environmental is just one of them."

Augusta Mayor Bob Young, however, doesn't see environmental stereotyping as a significant threat to the region's economy.

"Consider this: Atlanta has some of the most screwed up environmental issues in the country in terms of air and water," he said. "But the economy over there is absolutely booming. Explain that."

REACH

Robert Pavey at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or

rpavey@augustachronicle.com.