Bibb fails to meet new federal soot standard

hduncan@macon.comDecember 17, 2012 

The air in Bibb County is too full of soot to meet a tougher new pollution standard by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia officials said. The same is true in Atlanta, Augusta and Columbus.

Prodded by a lawsuit, the Obama administration’s new rule reduces by 20 percent the maximum amount of soot that can be released into the air from smokestacks, diesel trucks, fires and other sources.

These microscopic particles can be breathed deep into the lungs, causing heart and lung problems and contributing to heart attacks and asthma attacks.

Bibb County and a sliver of Monroe County already are in a federal “non-attainment zone” for failing to meet the old, milder standard. But because soot levels dropped in recent years, Georgia environmental officials recommended in June that the EPA end Bibb’s non-attainment status. The EPA has not yet responded.

Jac Capp, chief of the air branch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said he hopes for a response by the spring.

If the EPA agrees, that officially means that for the first time in a decade, Macon will be free from federal requirements related to either unhealthy levels of smog or soot.

However, the new soot standard opens the possibility that Macon’s non-attainment status could be revived within a few years. Although Bibb’s air now meets the old 1997 standard of 15 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter of air, it does not meet the new standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

Georgia will have until December 2013 to make recommendations about which counties should be in non-attainment zones for fine particle pollution, Capp said. That will allow the state to use one more year of air data, which is usually good news because air pollution levels have been dropping over time because of upgrades to power plants and vehicle exhaust systems.

The EPA has two more years after that to make final non-attainment decisions, which means that Macon’s fate depends on its air pollution over the next three years.

Currently Macon’s three-year average for fine particle pollution is 13.4 micrograms per cubic meter, putting its soot pollution on par with Atlanta’s, Capp said.

Bibb is one of just 66 counties nationwide that fail to meet the new standard. But EPA officials said all except for a handful of counties in California are expected to achieve the standard by 2020 without having to enact tougher air restrictions.

Under the Clean Air Act, the soot standard should have been reconsidered by 2011, but the Obama administration had sought to delay proposing it until after the November election.

When 11 states and public health groups sued, a federal judge ordered officials to act sooner. In June, the administration proposed dropping the standard to either 12 or 13 micrograms per cubic meter.

The new soot standard has been highly anticipated by environmental and business groups, who have battled over the extent to which it would protect public health or cause job losses. The EPA said its analysis shows the rule will have a net benefit ranging from about $3.6 billion to $9 billion a year.

Non-attainment designations can affect the cost of opening major factories and power plants within the non-attainment zone, because they must conduct computer modeling to show they will not contribute to exceeding the soot standard. And existing industrial sources of pollution may have their permits altered to limit their pollution, Capp said.

That’s why Georgia Power already is more than halfway through upgrading pollution controls at Plant Scherer, a coal-fired power plant in Monroe County that has been included in the Bibb non-attainment zones. Capp said the planned installation of several more sulfur dioxide scrubbers there in the next two years should continue to reduce soot levels in Bibb.

A study by the American Lung Association and other groups said the new standard will save an estimated 15,000 lives a year -- many in urban areas where exposure to emissions from older, dirty diesel engines and coal-fired power plants are greatest.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that racial minorities are more likely to live in areas where air pollution exceeds national standards.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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