DULUTH, Ga. - A divided Georgia Board of Natural Resources Thursday approved a plan to improve air quality by, among other things, placing stricter controls on industrial emissions and requiring gas stations to sell low-sulfur fuel.
But board members, admitting that the plan probably will be rejected by federal officials, also passed a second resolution hinting that they may take even tougher steps later to comply with federal clean-air standards by 2003.
The plan, approved by a vote of 9-4, is aimed at reducing ground-level ozone in the 13-county Atlanta region, which frequently during the summer months exceeds a standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Ground-level ozone is a key component of smog, which can cause breathing difficulties and other respiratory problems in children, the elderly, asthmatics and even healthy adults with prolonged exposure to the outdoors.
Before Thursday's vote, political and business leaders from several of the 45 counties that would be affected by the plan, from northwest Georgia to the Athens area, argued that the restrictions should not be applied to their communities.
They told board members that their cars and trucks don't contribute enough to metro-Atlanta's dirty air to warrant their inclusion in the plan, while tighter restrictions on industrial emissions would make it difficult for them to attract new jobs.
"These counties and citizens need a hand up from the state, not a push down," said state Rep. Curtis Jenkins, D-Forsyth, whose House district includes Jasper and Monroe counties and parts of Jones and Lamar counties.
But board member Ben Porter of Macon said air pollution has become a Georgia problem and can't be solved just from within metro Atlanta.
"Thirty years ago, I flew into Los Angeles for the first time, and I saw a dirty cloud that looked like you could walk on it," he said. "You couldn't see 200 yards, your eyes burned and you couldn't breathe ... For too many days this summer, I saw Atlanta look like Los Angeles 30 years ago."
The four board members who opposed the plan questioned the logic of approving something that will be rejected by the EPA. An official from the EPA's Atlanta regional office wrote in a letter last week that the proposed restrictions, as written, aren't tough enough to put metro-Atlanta into compliance with the federal standard for ozone.
"I don't see any reason to support a plan that's admittedly inadequate and ... that has some glaring flaws," said board member James Butler Jr. of Columbus.
But Harold Reheis, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, warned that if the state does not submit a plan to the EPA by the end of next month, the federal government could impose additional sanctions on the 13 metro-Atlanta counties. The state plan is aimed at lifting a ban on federal highway funds to those counties that has been in place for more than a year.
"These (restrictions) aren't quite there yet, but they're the best we could do given the time-frame we had," Mr. Reheis said.
The second resolution instructs the EPD to have recommendations for improvements ready for the board's Dec. 1 meeting. If board members like the suggested changes, the amended plan would be scheduled for a final vote in January.
The resolution specifically mentions imposing the same emissions restrictions on two of Georgia Power Co.'s coal-fired electric generating plants located southeast of Atlanta as the current plan calls for at five of the utility's plants north and west of the city.
But Georgia Power officials who attended Thursday's meeting said that would increase the company's estimated capital costs from $700 million to $857 million.