Despite scorching heat and drought, Macon has seen just six days of dangerous smog levels this summer, state records show.
Even in weather conditions usually considered ideal for ground-level ozone, Macon’s air has remained relatively safe to breathe.
As the primary component of smog, ground-level ozone causes breathing problems and has been linked to heart- and lung-related deaths. The ozone season doesn’t officially end until Oct. 1, but the period when Macon usually has violations has passed.
The rather mild ozone season is good news not only for the health of residents but for avoiding a new “non-attainment” designation for the area. Bibb and part of Monroe County were removed from a non-attainment zone after improving air quality enough to attain the 1997 ozone standard of 84 parts per billion. But the area looked almost sure to fail the new standard of 75 parts per billion created by the Bush administration in 2008. State officials had recommended that Bibb County and Plant Scherer in Monroe County be redesignated and were awaiting a response from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
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But then the Obama administration agreed to reconsider the 2008 standard in response to a lawsuit from the American Lung Association, environmental groups and some states. The groups had ammunition: The government’s own panel of experts found the 75 parts-per-billion limit too weak to protect human health.
The lawsuit and the new nonattainment designations went on hold in 2009 as the Environmental Protection Agency considered an even tougher standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion. But release of a new standard was delayed several times during the past year.
In the meantime, even without new requirements, Macon’s three-year ozone average improved enough to meet the 75 parts-per-billion standard, which local leaders had initially called “impossible” to reach. But ozone levels still don’t meet the tougher standards EPA was considering.
Finally, President Barack Obama announced recently that the ozone standard would not be changed until at least 2013 (when a legal review is required) because implementing a healthier ozone limit would be too expensive for businesses and could hurt the economy.
Charise Stephens, director of the Middle Georgia Clean Cities Coalition, called this good news for the region.
“We want clean air and the whole nine yards, but if that standard had come down, that would have put us back at square one with a new designation,” she said. “Especially in communities like ours that are proactive, this gives them more time to put things in place to clean up the air on their own instead of being sanctioned.”
The American Lung Association, however, said Obama’s decision will only hurt Americans. The group indicated it would restart its lawsuit, very likely aided by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s public statements that the 2008 standard isn’t safe enough to be legally defensible.
“We operated in good faith that science would be considered and they would follow the law,” said June Dean, Georgia director of the American Lung Association. “If they had moved forward as we’d hoped, it would have meant cleaner, healthier air for millions of people.”
The length of the reconsideration process means that nonattainment designations remain based on a 15-year-old standard that is weaker than the one created by the Bush administration, which was often criticized for weak environmental policies.
“We’re basing our air quality standards on a standard set more than a decade ago, a standard we know is making people sick,” said Jeanette Gayer of Environment Georgia. “We think the Obama administration got it very wrong.”
But it’s unclear how regulators will proceed. The EPA hasn’t told states whether to move ahead with non-attainment designations under the 2008 standard — or do nothing until 2013, said Jac Capp, air branch chief for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Even if the EPA revisits the standard in 2013, it would probably take years to finalize and then make new nonattainment decisions.
But if the EPA picks up where it left off instead, it will be making non-attainment decisions with data that is two years outdated. Georgia would want the chance to revise its recommendations, Capp said, and it would no longer want the Macon, Columbus, Augusta or Athens areas to be placed in non-attainment zones.
He said the gradual replacement of old cars and trucks, combined with continued improvements in pollution controls at power plants, has reduced ozone levels in all these areas without additional tough requirements.
“I think it’s fair to assume it will continue to trend down,” Capp said. He said even if the EPA enacts a tougher ozone standard in a few years, Macon might be able to meet it.
“If a future standard was 70 parts per billion, I think you’d have a pretty high level of confidence you’d meet that,” he said.
Capp said Georgia is mostly concerned that once the EPA decides what to do, it needs to give states enough time to plan and the flexibility to find its own ways to reduce air pollution instead of mandating specific fixes.
Despite the uncertainty, Capp said Georgia regulators will continue to use the 2008 standard when predicting and tracking high ozone days and when considering new major air pollution permits for industry.
So far this year, Macon has tied 2008 for the number of ozone violations, but the severity of this year’s violations was slightly less. The previous two years saw just two violations each.
Bill Murphey, chief meteorologist for the EPD and state climatologist, said the hot, dry weather this summer was the kind that usually helps create more ground-level ozone. “Macon has not had as many high ozone days as you might’ve expected,” he said.
He said several factors could have helped: the extreme heat or the presence of some moisture in the air from the Gulf of Mexico may have helped keep air flow unstable, preventing the stagnation that is ideal for cooking up ozone in the lower atmosphere. Favorable patterns of weather movement may have also helped keep Atlanta’s smog from drifting south to Macon.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.