Confirmed: Dirty air plagues region

Confirmed: Dirty air plagues region

July 23rd, 2011 by Matt Laslo in News

Marcos Espinoza, general manager of Sugar's Ribs, checks light bulbs on the patio at the restaurant on the side of Missionary Ridge.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - You can't see the particles emitted from power plants, but they're thick in Georgia's and Tennessee's air, a new report asserts.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that pushes environmental issues, says the region has some of the dirtiest air in the nation.

The group analyzed public information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and ranked states accordingly. Georgia's is the ninth dirtiest and Tennessee's is 15th dirtiest in the nation, the group claims.

"States that have power produced by coal plants are overwhelmingly responsible for higher levels of toxic air pollution, smog and soot due to the pollution that comes from the coal combustion," the Defense Council's John Walke said in an interview.

The NRDC also says Georgia has the 13th highest level of mercury emissions in the U.S. and Tennessee has the 24th-highest level.

"As a citizen and resident of Tennessee I'm concerned with air quality," Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said, responding to the survey. "But we need to balance that with our current energy needs.

"We are in a very, very fragile place economically. We have to remember that we do have economic needs that need to be met, so it's a balancing act."

The environmental group said House Republicans' efforts to cut the EPA's budget are harming efforts to clean the state's air.

In fiscal 2010, the EPA received roughly $10.29 billion. That was slashed to $8.68 billion after this year's budget fight between House Republicans and the White House.

The region's Republicans flatly reject the claim that their policies are leading to dirtier air. They say the EPA has been impeding job growth through overregulation.

Many say the agency still has a massive budget even if it's slimmer this year.

"Given the size and the amount of resources that have been thrown at the EPA, then you would think the results would be better," said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who hadn't seen the Defense Council report.

The report states that the Tennessee Valley Authority runs the seven power plants that emit the most harmful pollutants in Tennessee. While unseen, the particles emitted from coal-fired powered plants can cause respiratory diseases, such as asthma.

"The numbers are certainly not a surprise because they are our numbers," said Scott Brooks, a spokesman for TVA.

The report is based on 2009 data, and Brooks said the utility has "taken a number of steps just in the last few months to drastically change those numbers."

As a part of a settlement with the EPA, TVA is retiring 18 coal-fired units between now and 2018, and Brooks said they'll be evaluating all other units that don't already have environmental controls and possibly convert other units.