Breathing easier: Chattanooga clear on EPA's tightened soot standards

Breathing easier: Chattanooga clear on EPA's tightened soot standards

December 15th, 2012 by Pam Sohn in Business Around the Region

An aerial view of AT&T field and Downtown Chattanooga looking East.

Chattanooga should have blue skies and clear sailing under the Environmental Protection Agency's new, tightened air standards for soot pollution imposed Friday, according to local air pollution control officials.

"I don't see any impact as long as we continue to implement measures already being used here," said Bob Colby, director of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau.

That's good news for the city that in 1970 was the "dirtiest" air city in America and since has struggled several times to remain a "clean" air city.

Colby said auto emissions testing and a seasonal no-burn policy were implemented several years ago to help the city meet ozone regulations, but they also now will help the region meet the new fine particles -- soot -- regulations.

The new allowable annual standard is 12 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air, down from the current 15 micrograms per cubic meter.

Chattanooga's annual count already is 12 micrograms, Colby said, and he expects that number to go lower still when Invista, formerly DuPont, completes an effort to replace its coal-fired boilers with new natural gas-fired equipment.

"Countywide, that will bring down our sulfur dioxide emissions by 91.5 percent," Colby said. "We'll have fewer fine particles, so we'll be cleaner."

Invista officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

The new rules

The new soot standard is the Obama administration's first major regulation since the election, and the announcement meets a court deadline in a lawsuit from 11 states and public health groups.

The new standard is expected to reduce soot releases nationally by 20 percent.

Soot, or fine particulate matter, is made up of microscopic particles released from smokestacks, trucks, wood-burning stoves and other sources. Breathing it can contribute to heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks.

Environmental and business groups have battled over whether the standard will protect public health or cause job losses.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said people will "benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air."

Colby agreed that fine particulate reduction will have great health benefits.

"From a public health standpoint, it is the most important pollutant that we control. It results in the most deaths and the most health problems," he said.

"Most ozone health problems are temporary, but fine particulate matter can wreak havoc on the respiratory and cardiovascular system," Colby said.

But congressional Republicans and industry officials called the new standard overly strict and said it could hurt economic growth in areas where pollution levels are determined to be too high.

Ross Eisenberg, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the new rule is "yet another costly, overly burdensome" regulation that is "out of sync" with President Barack Obama's executive order last year to streamline federal regulations.

Jackson and other administration officials said the new rule was based on a rigorous scientific review.

Only 66 of more than 3,000 U.S. counties would fail to meet the proposed standard, which takes effect in 2014, and all but seven counties should meet the proposed standard by 2020 with no additional actions needed beyond compliance with existing and pending rules set by the EPA, officials said.

Colby said Knox County likely is the only Tennessee county expected to struggle.

"They're currently projected not to be in attainment," he said.

The administration has said it will work with states and counties to ensure they can meet the new soot standards by 2020, when stronger enforcement of the rule is expected.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.