A growing Southeast comes into compliance with ozone standards

Years of SELC efforts to reduce pollution from tailpipes and power plants across the Southeast are showing results as cities like Atlanta meet the stronger standards set for pollutants that cause ozone pollution. (© iStock)

With the official announcement last month that Atlanta’s air quality meets the federal ozone standard established in 2008, all of the Southeast now complies with that safeguard. That’s something we can all be thankful for.

But we can also be proud that at the same time our regional economy grew. This must come as a shock to the naysayers who made dire predictions when the standards were introduced. States and industry balked, going to great lengths to claim the effort required to reach tougher standards would destroy businesses and wreck the economy. Yet, we continue to add jobs as GDP grows—and our air is cleaner.

Ground-level ozone, or smog, has plagued Atlanta, Charlotte, Knoxville, Birmingham and other urban centers in the South for years. The colorless, odorless gas triggers asthma attacks and causes other lung and heart disease, as well as premature death. In the fast-sprawling South, vehicle exhaust is the main source of the volatile organic compounds that are significant contributors to ozone pollution. Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants also a big part of the problem.

Findings released in May show that the last Southeastern cities working to meet the 2008 standard—Charlotte, Knoxville, and Atlanta—all achieved it for the first time. (Washington D.C. was given a one-year extension.)

SELC’s work to move the Southeast away from coal-fired power contributed to this documented drop in pollution, recorded in May’s Federal Register. SELC’s legal advocacy accelerated commitments to retire more than one-third of the region’s coal-fired power plants. We also won the case before the Supreme Court that implemented requirements for the nation’s remaining power plants to use the latest pollution control technology in their stacks. 

At the same time, by encouraging greater investment in transit, like trains and light rail, and supporting smart, anti-sprawl development, SELC is shaping a future with well-designed cities where fewer single drivers are trapped in long, polluting commutes.

This work is all part of our larger vision of cleaner energy fueling the Southeast’s future; cities meeting ozone standards is one piece of that picture. But the work isn’t done.

All our cities now meet the 2008 standard, which the Environmental Protection Agency set at a concentration of 75 parts per billion (ppb). However, since 2008, our scientific understanding of the dangers of ozone has advanced. New studies show that, especially for the most vulnerable among us like kids and the elderly, ozone is still a problem at the 75 ppb level. So, as the law requires, in late 2015 EPA updated the federal standard based on the latest science by lowering it to 70 ppb.

If you hear cries that meeting the new, 2015 limit is going to bring doom and gloom to our economy, know that we’ve heard that song and dance before. Many places are already meeting the more protective standards, providing further evidence that we can safeguard the environment and human health all while fostering our region’s economic growth.

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