EPA: Air quality in metro Atlanta improves

Counties still must meet tighter 2008 standards

CONYERS — It’s official. Air quality in metro Atlanta has improved.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that the metro Atlanta region has met clean air standards for ozone levels set by the federal agency in 1997. Jimmy Johnston, program manager with the air protection branch of the state Environmental Protection Division, said that the 20-county metro region, which includes Rockdale and Newton counties, attained the 1997 ozone standards in 2010, and the EPA formally approved that attainment this week.

Ground level or “bad” ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight, according to the EPA. Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of ozone. Breathing ozone can trigger or worsen a variety of health problems.

According to the EPA press release announcing the redesignation of the Atlanta area to the attainment of the 1997 eight-hour ozone standard, the progress is the result of cooperation among local, state and federal agencies, as well as private partners and the more than 4 million people who live and work in the Atlanta area.

The 20 counties impacted by the decision include Barrow, Bartow, Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Newton, Paulding, Rockdale, Spalding and Walton.

“What this could mean locally is less stringent requirements on new industry that may locate to the area, that’s probably the main thing,” Johnston said.

At the same time, he said, more stringent standards were imposed in 2008 and the Atlanta region has until 2015 to meet those.

“Because of that, we do need to keep most of the provisions in place because we have to attain the newer standards,” Johnston said. “This gives us the ability to look and see if there are regulations that are no longer needed and it gives us an opportunity to come up with plans for attaining the newer, tighter standard.”

The American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air Report that was released this summer seems to back up this claim. According to that report, which did not include Newton County, Rockdale County reported 46.2 fewer days of high levels of ozone since 1996 and the trend continues to decline.

Brian Carr, director of communications for The Clean Air Campaign, said at the time the report was released in July that Rockdale County had had no days to that point where air quality reached unhealthy levels, with no Code Orange or Code Red days.

Many variables go into improving air quality, Johnston said.

He said the primary reason Atlanta’s air quality has improved is due to cleaner gasoline and emissions from vehicles.

According to American Community Survey data, more than half of Rockdale County residents travel outside the county to work. Of those, 12.3 percent carpool, which is more than the state average of 10.5 percent.

“A lot of air pollution, especially ozone, is due to all the vehicles in Atlanta. We have gotten cleaner and will continue to do so,” Johnston said.