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Atlanta pollution going nowhere

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01/31/2001 - Updated 05:54 PM ET

PHOTO: Traffic moving toward downtown Atlanta slows to a crawl. (John Bazemore, AP)

Atlanta pollution going nowhere

By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

John Bazemore, AP Atlantans have the nation's longest average daily commute: 35 miles.

ATLANTA — On a recent day here in the metropolitan area, local news coverage was dominated for the third day in a row by traffic stories. After separate accidents on three of the city's major traffic arteries, Atlantans spent hours in major traffic jams. Traffic in this fast-sprawling metropolis, where drivers endure the nation's longest average daily commute of 35 miles, has become the stuff of legend. It also has made Atlanta one of the nation's most polluted cities.


Los Angeles, Houston, Washington and other metro areas face similar congestion and pollution problems. What makes Atlanta unique, experts say, is that its dirty air is more directly related to vehicle emissions than almost any other city's.

Part of the problem is that historically, Georgia has tried to solve its traffic problems by building roads. That has contributed to an increase in the number of vehicles on the highways.

Two years ago, with traffic worsening, environmental groups got the Environmental Protection Agency to stop federal money for new roads until Atlanta cleaned up its air. The federal government lifted the ban in July after the state agreed to emphasize mass transit and test emissions on cars every year, instead of every two years. When the environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, threatened to go to court over weaknesses in the plan, the state began negotiating with them.

A tentative agreement with Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes fell through earlier this month. On Jan. 16, the groups filed suit against the EPA arguing that because the state failed to meet a deadline of 1999 for cleaning up Atlanta's air, the region's pollution status should be downgraded from "serious" to "severe."

Now, things are back to square one, and no one seems to know when this latest round of legal maneuverings might end. What does seem certain is that Atlantans will not see their traffic or pollution easing anytime soon.

Residents of the 13-county metro area drove their cars — some 3 million of them — an estimated 115.6 million miles a day in 1999, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. That distance, experts say, is equal to a trip from Earth to the sun and part way back, and it's projected to grow to at least 158 million miles a day by 2025.

Atlanta, which added 1 million residents over the past decade, has been tagged in recent years as the "poster child for sprawl."

"Everybody is watching to see whether these laws (on ozone levels) are going to work" to clean up Atlanta's air, says Wesley Woolf, director of the Atlanta office of the Southern Environmental Law Center and attorney for the plaintiffs.

Environmentalists say their agreement with the state fell through because they wanted federal court enforcement of some clean air components. Georgia wanted state court enforcement. The two sides disagreed over when ozone-reduction goals should be met. Environmentalists said 2003; the state wanted 2004.

State and EPA officials, though not commenting directly on the latest lawsuit, say the region has improved its air quality slightly. They note that Atlanta had 11 "bad air" days — when ozone levels are considered dangerous for some asthma sufferers and others — last summer. That's down from 23 the previous year.

Stan Meiburg, the acting EPA regional administrator here, attributes the improvement to different weather patterns and to cars using lower sulfur gasolines. He also says an advertising campaign urging commuters to carpool or vanpool has helped.

"It's getting better, but it hasn't gotten there fast enough," says Marlin Gottschalk of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The EPA determines whether an area meets federal standards for clean air by averaging ozone levels over a three-year period, says Jeffrey Clark, a spokesman for the agency's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.

On hot, sunny days with no wind, exhaust from vehicles floats into the air. Nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons from those emissions then cook to form ozone. On those days, emergency rooms across the city treat more people for asthma-related illnesses.

In addition to health risks, there is a growing concern that Atlanta's air quality problems will deter corporations and individuals from moving to the area.

Atlanta's traffic problems are rooted in a transportation history of poor planning and competing philosophies: roads or mass transit and rural vs. urban politics. It all has been exacerbated by the state's phenomenal growth.

"It's hard to say how long it might take to resolve this," says Robert Bullard, author of Sprawl City: Race, Politics and Planning in Atlanta and an adviser to one of the groups in the lawsuit. "Transit is the most heated and controversial issue facing us right now. We've got to make sure the transportation investments we make will help improve our air quality and help us get rid of this label as a dirty city." partners: USA WEEKEND Sports Weekly Education
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