Traffic and congestion contribute to lower air quality, but a new Environmental Protection Agency report says metro Atlanta has met a more stringent standard for air pollution. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM 1963833

Metro Atlanta’s air quality improves despite population growth

Just in time for summer smog season, the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday reported that metro Atlanta’s air quality has met an important standard for pollution.

The federal agency said the 15-county metro region has “reached a significant milestone … in the midst of significant population growth.”

Officially, the region has met the 2008 8-hour ozone standard, although that standard wasn’t put into practice until 2012. For context, the Atlanta area in 2014 officially met a previous, 1997 EPA standard.

Georgia environmental officials celebrated the news.

“It is a big deal,” said Karen Hays, the chief of the state Environmental Protection Division’s Air Protection Branch. “We have tried to get the message across that the air quality in Atlanta, all of Georgia really, but especially in Atlanta, is getting cleaner. This is affirmation of that.”

Ground level or “bad” ozone comes from emissions from power plants, industrial facilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents. High levels of ozone can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It can also worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Young children and the elderly are particularly at risk.

The EPA uses a series of air quality monitors in nine counties across the region to test for ozone. Pollution levels were measured for three years before the agency granted the state its new designation.

While the EPA designation is good news, it does not trigger any change in existing environmental rules. For example, during summer months Atlanta-area drivers will continue to have to buy more expensive low-sulfur gasoline, designed to reduce carbon emissions.

The EPA’s decision affirms what the American Lung Association reported in April in its annual “State of the Air” report. The group found that “Georgia, like most Southeast states, shows strong evidence of the progress made in air quality thanks to the Clean Air Act.”

Much of that progress, the report said, comes from more stringent controls on coal-burning power plants and newer, cleaner diesel engines. Metro Atlanta, the Lung Association said, had its fewest ozone days reported since the report launched 18 years ago.

Still, Lung Association spokeswoman June Deen said, the EPA is already in the process of enacting even stronger air quality requirements that the Atlanta area may not yet meet.

“We know that the air quality is improving,” Deen said. “We’re probably still not where we could or should be, but we like the way it’s going.”

Neill Herring, a lobbyist for environmental groups at the state Capitol, agreed that Georgia Power’s reductions in emissions at power plants likely contributed to increased air quality, “along with better fuel mileage in vehicles.”

The news came the day after President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of an international agreement known as the Paris accord that aims to reduce the causes and effects of climate change.

While many top Georgia officials praised Trump’s moveAtlanta Mayor Kasim Reed vowed to “intensify our efforts” to reduce carbon emissions. Reed was joined by more than 60 other mayors from across the country.

Requests for comment from the mayor’s office on the EPA’s declaration were unsuccessful.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.