Local leaders can breathe a little easier now that initial reports indicate the Columbus area will not face stricter scrutiny for meeting some federal air-quality standards.
Both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division have not included Columbus in a list of areas to be designated as "nonattainment" for failing to meet air-quality standards for particulate pollution. The EPA and EPD will make a final decision on which cities deserve stricter environmental enforcement in December.
Local government and business leaders fear such enforcement because it could affect everything from transportation projects to industrial recruitment, and particularly any initiative involving federal funding. Anything that could worsen the area's air quality would be subject to intense scrutiny.
"It doesn't mean you can't develop," said Rick Jones, the city's planning director. "It just makes it more difficult to do so."
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And once an area's in nonattainment, "it's really hard to get out — that's why we're trying to avoid it at all costs," Jones said. "It lasts at least 20 years."
So this notice that Columbus is not on the initial list of nonattainment areas lets city leaders breathe a sigh of relief — for now.
"We won't know until the final determination's made in December," Jones said, "but all indications right now are, we're going to be in the clear."
The recommendation was based on air-quality data collected over the past three years.
The threshold for the particulate pollution EPA regulates is set at 2.5 microns — about a thirtieth the size of a human hair. Such fine particles hang in the air, and when inhaled, they penetrate deep into the lungs, damaging the respiratory system and aggravating asthma and other breathing problems. In 2006, the EPA adopted a stricter standard for particulates, dropping the acceptable air content from 65 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter, as measured over 24 hours.
Initially, the Columbus area was thought to be at risk of being designated nonattainment, under that standard, and local leaders hustled to institute programs that would reduce such pollution. The city government, for example, adopted an "anti-idling" rule for city vehicles, requiring that diesel engines be turned off when the equipment is not in use. Heavy diesel engines are a primary contributor to particulate pollution.
Regional leaders have formed an Air Quality Alliance of the Chattahoochee Valley, online at www.columbusga.com/AQA. For more information on that, call 706-653-4421 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.