Originally created 02/28/01

Augusta faces toughening of air standards



The U.S. Supreme Court's rejection Tuesday of challenges to the Clean Air Act makes it a virtual certainty that Augusta will become one of Georgia's new "nonattainment zones" that flunk federal ozone standards.

The unanimous ruling rejected industry challenges to new ozone standards that would require many cities - including Augusta, Macon and Columbus in Georgia - to improve air quality or face possible penalties.

"This means areas like Augusta, Macon and Columbus will be designated nonattainment areas for ozone, probably later this year," said Ron Methier, air protection chief for Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.

Ozone, an unhealthy mix of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, originates with vehicle exhaust and emissions from coal-fired power plants and other industries.

The odorless gas previously was measured on an hourly standard that could not exceed 0.120 parts per million. The new standard is measured in eight-hour averages that cannot exceed 0.085 parts per million.

Although polluted cities such as Atlanta flunked both the old and new standards, borderline cities such as Augusta were in compliance with the old standards, but not the new one.

Nonattainment designations for cities such as Augusta could lead to stricter vehicle emissions, complex requirements for receiving federal transportation dollars and restrictions on industries.

Industries sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, contending the new ozone standards were in excess of what was necessary to protect public health.

The EPA, citing new medical evidence that ozone causes a host of medical problems, countered that the ozone standards were necessary.

Tuesday's court ruling is a definite victory for advocates of clean air, said David Rose, Georgia"s clean-air advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"This is a huge victory for Georgia, and for public health in Georgia. We can finally proceed with implementing the Clean Air Act without any doubt or delay," he said. "In many cities, including Augusta, now we can come up with a good plan to clean up the air."

The Clean Air Act, enacted in 1970, is the nation's premier environmental law, and the industry challenge was viewed as the most significant environmental case in years. The Clinton administration had told the justices the dispute has profound implications for Americans' health.

The law requires the EPA to set national air-quality standards to "protect the public health." The agency is to use criteria that "accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge" for identifying pollution's effects on health.

Business groups that long have chafed under the clean-air law argued that EPA was setting standards without clear criteria and without considering the financial costs of complying with them.

Industry groups that challenged the clean-air rules included the American Trucking Associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and three states - Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.