Group seeks to fend off nonattainment status

WARNER ROBINS — Ozone nonattainment could bring economic and health crises to Middle Georgia.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said that is why the Middle Georgia Clean Air Coalition is fighting to make sure several key areas of its membership — such as Robins Air Force Base — don’t get the designation.

Reichert, chair of the coalition that includes seven Middle Georgia counties, said progress is being delayed because some city and county boards are slow to realize that a slight budget increase to hire a lobbying firm is better than the alternative.

“The short answer is the additional money is a small price to pay for collaboratively hiring a public relations firm in Washington that can help minimize the area of nonattainment and be a resource for you in your ongoing efforts,” he said after Thursday’s coalition meeting.

Reichert said members of the coalition — comprised of elected officials in Houston, Bibb, Peach, Jones, Monroe, Crawford and Twiggs counties — are being asked to put up a specific amount of the $108,000 needed to hire the Clark Group to lobby the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA will soon decide whether other areas of the coalition’s jurisdiction, which includes Robins Air Force Base in Houston County, should be classified as an ozone nonattainment zone. Macon and part of Monroe County have been designated as a nonattainment zone for having unsafe levels of fine particle pollution.

He said the group is fighting to keep crucial areas, such as the base, out of nonattainment status, which would limit the activity that goes on in that area.

“Additional missions at Robins, that would not happen,” he said. “There are several different ramifications for the designation — health, quality of life, economic. There’s not a single thing I can think of about being in nonattainment other than alerting people to the fact that we’ve fouled our nest.”

In 2005, the Clark Group was hired with the same purpose. At the time, it helped steer the EPA away from designating Houston County as a nonattainment zone, and Reichert said he believes the group could minimize harm in the EPA’s designations again.

The group also helped the coalition secure a $4.5 million federal grant for improving air quality, which the group recently decided to spend on genset engines for Brosnan Yard, a major train switching hub located in Macon. Diesel locomotives at Brosnan Yard are a major contributor to air pollution levels in the area. The genset engines, which use multiple small engines rather than a single large engine, would significantly decrease those levels, Reichert said.

Of the $108,000 for the lobbyist, $25,000 was to be paid for by the 21st Century Partnership, the nonprofit community group dedicated to supporting RAFB which initially organized the coalition. The rest was broken down to be paid by the various jurisdictions. It will soon come back for discussion with the Houston County Commission, which tabled the subject at its last meeting. The county is being asked to pay an additional $8,250, its part for the lobbyist.

“We’re back where we were four or five years ago,” Houston County Commission Chairman Ned Sanders said at the group’s Aug. 4 meeting. “Nonattainment carries a long-term recovery period. Eighty-two hundred and fifty dollars is well spent to help us avoid going into nonattainment.”

Houston County Administrator Steve Engel said he thinks commissioners would be more likely to approve a smaller figure for the actual amount of time the firm will be on hire.

“It was initially supposed to start in June or July,” he said. “Obviously, they’re not going to be (working) a year now.”

Either way, Reichert said, it needs to be approved.

“There’s very significant risk for us in being in nonattainment status,” he said. “It would be an indication that the air isn’t healthy to breathe, and there’s significant effects for the elderly and children.

And there’s no city or county that has a department of air quality, which would mean if we get the designation, we’re hopelessly ill-prepared to do (anything) about it.”

To contact writer Marlon A. Walker, call 256-9685.