The "A" in Atlanta may as well stand for "asthma." After all, our city was named the asthma capital of the nation earlier this year. The title is hardly surprising. Atlanta has never met the federal air-quality standards that were established more than 30 years ago.
While we all suffer the effects of bad air, the majority of victims are Atlanta's children. More than one in 10 of our children suffer from asthma, which leads to missed school days, hospitalization and even death.
Atlanta's cars contribute to our air-quality woes. But this summer's smoky air, caused by the soot and gases in our skies from South Georgia forest fires, reminds us that air doesn't respect city or county boundaries.
Our state already is home to 10 coal-fired power plants, one of which leads the nation in emissions of sulfur dioxide, a colorless gas that causes severe respiratory problems. And Georgia just approved a permit for Dynegy, a Texas company, to build a coal-fired plant that will emit approximately 9 million tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of putting an additional 1.5 million cars on Georgia's roads.
Other states facing similar problems have shown remarkable leadership. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is actively opposing efforts to locate coal plants in Florida. The North Carolina attorney general is opposing efforts by EPA to roll back controls of Georgia's and other upwind states' nitrogen oxide emissions. Compare that with Georgia, where Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office is opposing citizen efforts to require stricter controls on Georgia's two dirtiest power plants.
The story is similar when it comes to coal plants' emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary "greenhouse gas" emitted by human industry. One Georgia Power plant boasts the highest CO2 emissions in the country, and Southern Co., Georgia Power's parent, produces more of the gas than all but one other utility.
In New York, the attorney general is investigating Dynegy because of his concern that emissions from the company's plants will cancel out his region's efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In Georgia, Baker's office is vigorously defending Dynegy's right to spew carbon dioxide without any limits whatsoever.
Individual Atlantans certainly can reduce their pollution footprint by cutting their reliance on energy produced by fossil fuels. Those efforts will be overwhelmed, however, if state policies continue to encourage increases in air emissions – and we'll continue to be the nation's asthma capital for years to come.
How can we fight back? Two suggestions:
First, local officials can demand the state adopt strong policies encouraging renewable energy and energy efficiency, and discouraging unhealthy options for energy production such as coal.
And the city of Atlanta can weigh in on decisions made by both the state Environmental Protection Division and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, particularly decisions to allow for increased emissions from new or expanding industrial sources of pollution.
Justine Thompson is the executive director of GreenLaw, formerly known as the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest. GreenLaw provides legal and technical assistance to fight air and water pollution in Georgia.