State wins 10-year battle with EPA

The state has won a 10-year battle with federal environmental regulators over whether the Atlanta metro area is required to use a cleaner, reformulated gasoline.

While smog in Atlanta and 13 surrounding counties continues to be a significant health threat, Georgia hasn’t demonstrated the need for reformulated gas in order to reduce air pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

Friday’s ruling notes that the region has improved its ground-level ozone quality since the EPA first tried to force it to use reformulated gasoline in 2004. Also, the agency concluded reformulated gas would have “limited emissions benefits” when compared to the low-sulfur fuel Georgia already requires.

State officials welcomed the EPA’s ruling. “It has been one of those things that loomed over us,” said William Cook, engines and fuels unit manager for the state Environmental Protection Division.

But to the American Lung Association, the EPA’s ruling was based on “tortured legalese” that allows Atlanta to evade tougher regulation. Air in the metro area has gotten cleaner over the past 20 years, said Paul G. Billings, a senior vice president at the association. But, he said, “There are still way too many days in Atlanta where the air violates the national clean air quality standards. That means there are days when the elderly, children, people with asthma, lung disease and heart disease are at elevated risks.”

A federal judge in 2004 ruled that gas stations here had to begin selling reformulated gas, typically mixed with ethanol, because smog levels violated clean air standards then in effect. That order was put on hold, though, as litigation continued.

Georgia argued that the order would increase gas prices by 5 cents a gallon, costing motorists more than $143 million a year. The state also argued that the gas would worsen air pollution, which the EPA and ethanol suppliers disputed.

“Reformulated gas won’t help us,” Cook said this week. “All it will do is cost the citizens of this state more money.”

The controversy over cost has waned in the past decade, said Jeff Holmstead, a lobbyist who led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation from 2001 to 2005. Before 2005, the EPA’s reformulated gasoline rule, in effect, required ethanol to be part of the blend, which increased the cost.

But in a 2005 energy law, Congress mandated a certain amount of renewable fuels be used in gas blends across the country. Now the difference between reformulated gas and everything else is small, Holmstead said, both in terms of cost and environmental benefit.

EPA now requires parts of 12 states to use the fuel blend, including most of the Northeast corridor and Southern California.

EPA’s decision recognizes that, without reformulated gas, Georgia in 2006 was able to reduce ozone to meet a previous clean air standard. Even though the metro area was soon in violation of a new, stricter requirement, the agency determined that federal law was ambiguous as to whether reformulated gas was required in that situation.

The Atlanta area has struggled to get air quality in line with clean air standards.

Last year, the area finally met 1997 smog limits. But it is still in violation of stricter standards enacted in 2008. Cook said that the area will have to take additional steps to meet that standard. But he said new emission standards to take effect for cars in 2017 will help reduce smog, as will emission controls recently installed by Georgia Power.

Billings said that even the new standard is not enough to protect health from hazardous air pollutants, which are typically worse during the summer. Ozone can irritate the respiratory system and eyes and has been linked to increased hospitalizations and premature death.

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