Bibb could be flagged for smog levels — again

Georgia environmental regulators are expected to recommend today that Bibb County and Plant Scherer in Monroe County be placed in a federal nonattainment zone — again — for dangerous smog levels.

Bibb County and a portion of Monroe County were first identified as failing to meet federal standards for ozone, the primary component of smog, in 2004. High amounts of ozone at ground level can cause breathing and heart problems.

But air quality improvements in recent years brought the region back into attainment for ozone pollution in 2008, a year ahead of schedule.

Then the ozone standards got tougher. Macon fell short again.

A letter sent Feb. 9 to local leaders indicated the state would again tell the federal Environmental Protection Agency that Bibb County should be put in a nonattainment zone, said Jimmy Johnston, manager of air quality planning for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.

The EPA, which has final say over the nonattainment zones, will respond to the state by Nov. 12, Johnston said.

Johnston said the zone the EPD is suggesting looks a little different from the original: It excludes the corridor of land between Bibb County and Plant Scherer, the largest coal-fired power plant in the country.

Johnston said that area was included before because previously EPA wanted the parts of nonattainment zones to be connected.

Its policies have changed since then, he said, and the connecting corridor had complicated transportation planning. Road projects within a nonattainment zone can’t add significantly to ozone pollution in the area.

The EPD didn’t include Houston County in its nonattainment recommendation.

It made the same decision in 2004, but the EPA initially disagreed. In response to additional information provided by the state and intense lobbying from proponents of Robins Air Force Base, the EPA reversed itself and the final designation excluded Houston County.

Johnston explained the rationale for excluding Houston County this time: It has a separate planning organization for transportation; including it would be inconsistent with current nonattainment boundaries; it has participated in regional efforts to reduce air pollution, including open burning restrictions; and two of its three largest industrial sources of smog-related pollution already have pollution controls.

The two primary contributors to ozone pollution are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Cemex and Anchor Glass are the two largest single sources of nitrogen oxide in Houston County, Johnston said.

The Cemex cement kilns and one of the two glass furnaces at Anchor have nitrogen controls, Johnston said.

Houston County still has no ozone monitor, so state scientists don’t have specific information about its ozone levels. Johnston said EPA criteria determine where monitors are installed, and Houston isn’t required to have one.

EPD sent the February letter to local stakeholders for feedback before sending out a final recommendation today, Johnston said.

He said the state has heard little feedback concerning the Macon non-attainment zone.

Bibb County and the portion of Monroe between the county line and Plant Scherer remain in an existing nonattainment zone for fine-particle pollution.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.