Augusta's unhealthiest air blows in from the east and south and bears traces of sulfur dioxide - a component of coal combustion, according to an analysis of local air pollution.
But the study's author - Dr. Michael Chang of the Georgia Institute of Technology - cautioned that the results of the Fall Line Air Quality Study are only preliminary.
"The second year is the key," he said during a briefing Tuesday at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. Air samples gathered this summer in three locations will help expand and refine last year's data.
The study began in July after environmental regulators warned Augusta, Columbus and Macon that pollution levels would earn them nonattainment status under the federal Clean Air Act.
Cities declared nonattainment zones would join Atlanta and other areas that face vehicle emissions requirements and restrictions on industry and transportation funding.
Dr. Chang and his colleagues want to identify the origins of ground-level ozone that creates unhealthy smog. Ozone is the mix of volatile organic compounds, sunlight and nitrogen oxides created by combustion.
Scientists want to know, for example, whether major pollution centers such as Atlanta affect ozone levels in cities including Augusta.
"We've always perceived it, on a statewide basis, as an Atlanta problem," Dr. Chang said. "Now we know other areas of the state have problems as well."
The ground-level ozone that pushes Augusta's air quality into noncompliance has several components, Dr. Chang said.
There are background levels that exist everywhere, and regional impacts that elevate those background levels. The extra push from local industry and vehicle emissions likely pushes ozone limits over the edge, he said.
Although regional initiatives can reduce some pollutants, working to eliminate local sources offers "the most bang for the buck," he said.
The two primary causes of ozone are single-source producers such as coal-fired power plants, and the cumulative impact of automobile exhaust.
Last year's sampling concluded that local air is affected, at least in part, by sulfur dioxide, a component of coal burning.
Although sulfur dioxide does not cause ozone, it helps trace nitrogen oxides present in unhealthy air to coal combustion. Vehicle emissions, by comparison, have nitrogen oxides foot-printed with carbon monoxide.
One of the largest nitrogen oxide emitters in the region is South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s Urquhart Steam Generating Plant in Beech Island, which burns as much as 1,400 tons per day of coal just four miles from Augusta.
Although the plant could be a factor in Augusta's pollution levels, Dr. Chang said plants as far away as Atlanta and Columbia also could play a role considering the regional nature of such emissions.
SCE&G spokesman Brian Duncan said a $180 million renovation at the Urquhart site will eliminate about 90 percent of the emissions within two years.
Two of the aging plant's three coal-fired boilers - built in 1953 - are being replaced with natural gas-fired technology.
Georgia Tech's air study, meanwhile, will continue this summer in all three cities. A new monitoring station at Riverside Park in Columbia County was activated last week.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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