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18 Tennessee counties fail air test

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Thursday that 18 Tennessee counties, including Hamilton and Meigs, don't meet new federal smog standards and must take immediate action.
/ Source: The Chattanooga Times Free Press

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Thursday that 18 Tennessee counties, including Hamilton and Meigs, don't meet new federal smog standards and must take immediate action.

EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt said states "need to take deliberate steps to clean the air. No one will be excused."

Federal officials also announced that three Tennessee metropolitan areas were dropped from a waiver program -- the "early action compact." These waivers delay penalties for violating ozone standards.

Of 33 early action compacts across the country, only Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis were dropped, officials said.

Stan Meiburg, deputy regional administrator for the EPA's Southeast region, said the plans submitted for reducing ozone by 2007 weren't sufficient.

"That's just the way it shook out in those areas," Mr. Meiburg said.

The rejection caught elected officials off guard.

"This action today came from out of the blue," Gov. Phil Bredesen said. "It struck me as a little more of a bureaucratic 'gotcha' than it did an honest and straightforward attempt to be constructive and helpful."

Chattanooga's plan to reduce ozone included bans on open burning, urging the use of carpools and avoiding mowing lawns on high ozone days.

The Hamilon County metropolitan area now faces restrictions on economic development and federal road funding as soon as June 15, EPA officials said.

New industry moving into the area that would emit large levels of ozone-causing pollution will have to ensure it will cut emissions of other pollutants.

Gov. Bredesen said the EPA should have helped the counties through their planning shortcomings.

"Instead," he said, "it was just, 'We don't think you filled the forms out to our satisfaction. Off with your head.' I don't think that is appropriate."

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said local officials did not know their early action compact plan would be denied.

"We were doing everything we need to do and had no indication that what we proposed would not meet the guidelines," he said. "Mayor (Bob) Corker and I are committed to get headed back in the direction we thought we were."

Environmentalists said officials in the Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis metro areas may have themselves to blame.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the counties weren't "aggressive" enough.

"Who takes the political heat?" Mr. Smith said. "That's always been the problem. Early action compacts are a great idea until they meet up with political reality."

He said proposed actions such as voluntary "ozone action days" weren't enough. Such proposals, made by Hamilton County, involve alerting residents on days when ozone is heavy and asking them to take steps such as car pooling and avoiding using their lawn mowers.

Bob Colby, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, said EPA officials never told him local efforts would not be enough, even though "the modeling that came out showed us right on the edge."

"We would have (added more) if we had received any indication that we needed to," he said.

Betsy Child, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the department is developing ways to cut ozone pollution.

Tennessee legislators will consider legislation giving the state air quality control board the authority to require vehicle emissions testing.

The board would require counties not meeting federal air standards to implement a vehicle inspection and maintenance program. Testing also could be implemented in counties that meet standards but contribute to pollution elsewhere due to commuting patterns.

Ms. Child said the bill is one of only two significant bills TDEC is pushing in the General Assembly.

State Rep. Rob Briley, D-Nashville, House sponsor of the bill, said the legislation has a good chance to pass.

Currently, Memphis and the Nashville metro area have the only vehicle emissions programs in Tennessee.

Early action compacts in the Nashville and Tri-Cities area are still in effect, deferring the restrictions now facing the rest of the state's metropolitan cities.

The governor said he plans to meet with local officials from those areas to work out an appropriate response and methods to handle the challenges of meeting stricter ozone standards.

While most of the population in Tennessee and Georgia was hit with bad news, officials in Marion and Walker counties were pleased with the outcome.

"You better believe that's good news," said Marion County Mayor Howell Moss. In December, the EPA initially considered those counties in violation of the ozone standard, but dropped them from the list of violating areas.

Those counties were also in the Chattanooga early action compact, but unlike the other agreement participants, will not face any restrictions on new industry or transportation planning.

Mr. Moss and Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said they are both still committed to working on a regional approach to lowering ozone pollution.

Staff writer John Commins contributed to this report.

Fast fact

n The EPA designated 474 counties in 31 states as not meeting the new ozone regulations. Eighteen Tennessee counties and 24 Georgia counties violate new federal ozone standards.

n Ground-level ozone is a precursor to smog, which studies have shown contributes to childhood illnesses and lung and asthma problems.

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