Atlanta’s air quality hasn’t exactly gone from wheezy to breezy, but it’s getting there.
As expected, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that the metro area officially reached an important milestone: It is now in compliance with 1997 limits for ground-level ozone, more commonly known as smog.
Most of the Atlanta region still falls short of stricter air quality guidelines enacted in 2008. But it has until 2015 to meet them.
While that work remains, state officials were happy with the direction the region is headed.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in making this a healthier place to live,” said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
The decision affects 20 counties: Barrow, Bartow, Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Newton, Paulding, Rockdale, Spalding and Walton.
Annual inspections have been credited with lowering the pollution from tailpipe emissions, as has the required sale of a more expensive low-sulfur blend of gasoline in a number of metro counties. Additional emission controls on power plants and other industries have also been effective, officials said. So has an education and marketing push about carpooling and using mass transit.
Those policies will continue, as metro Atlanta still faces a significant hurdle: meeting the 2008 guidelines.
“It’s a continual process,” said David D’Onofrio, a senior planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission. “We meet a standard, the standard tightens. We meet that standard, it tightens again. The net result is just continuing improvement in air quality for our region.”
Ground-level ozone is formed when air pollutants from vehicles, power plants and smokestacks react to sunlight. Inhaling ozone can cause chest pain and congestion and worsen conditions such as asthma and emphysema.
The Clean Air Act Amendments are expected to prevent more than 230,000 deaths and 17 million missed workdays nationally by 2020, according to the EPA.
By law, the federal air quality standards are supposed to be updated every five years and therefore should be due for a change this year. The standards enacted in 2008, however, didn’t become effective until July 20, 2012. So it may be a while before Congress revisits them, said Brian Carr, a spokesman for the Clean Air Campaign.
In the meantime, Atlanta has more work to do if it hopes to keep smog at bay even as its population is expected to grow by 3 million people over the next three decades.
“With that will come more demand for energy and transportation access (both of which cause more emissions),” Carr said. “Those issues will need to be addressed in new and more innovative ways.”
Staff reports contributed to this article.
Air quality: Where metro Atlanta stands
- Air quality standards established in 1997 allow for ozone levels up to 84 parts per billion, or ppb. That’s 84 ozone molecules out of every billion air molecules.
- Metro Atlanta’s ozone level is roughly 80 ppb. In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified the region as a “marginal” nonattainment area, meaning it’s close but not quite there.
- State officials have until the end of 2015 to bring the region in line with the newer standard of 75 ppb before facing penalties.
Source: Georgia Environmental Protection Division