Atlanta’s efforts to grapple with the quality of the air breathed by its citizens is a story with many chapters unfolding over at least four decades. Luckily, it is a tale with a happy ending that reveals how science, regulation and, ultimately, collaboration can lead to a healthier and more prosperous region.

In 1999, then-governor Roy Barnes appointed me to the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, the board with statewide responsibilities for the management and conservation of Georgia’s natural resources. Gov. Barnes had campaigned on the promise to appoint individuals with environmental credentials and experience to serve on this board and I was one of several individuals chosen to fulfill that commitment.

When I joined the Board of Natural Resources, one of the most important issues under consideration was Atlanta’s poor air quality. Despite several decades of effort to improve the air – following the metro region’s designation as a “nonattainment” area in 1978 under federal clean air regulations – the pollution and accompanying health problems were getting worse. According to an analysis of state data by Georgia Tech, only thirty-four percent of the summer days in 1999 were “safe” for outside activities by children, the elderly, outdoor workers, and people of all ages with respiratory conditions. The culprit: ground-level ozone.

Ozone exists naturally in the atmosphere miles above Earth and plays an important protective role. But, at ground level, where it is created by the reaction of sunlight on emissions from vehicles, power plants and other sources, ozone is unhealthy for living things. Created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), ozone can be transported long distances by wind.

On a recent August afternoon, I met Dr. Michael Chang, Deputy Director of Georgia Tech’s Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems, at the Tech Square Starbucks near campus. Michael and I had not seen each other for many years, my orbit having centered on all things water and his on air and other issues. I wanted to hear Michael’s perspective on the city’s air quality today; I knew from previous experience that he was the right person to give me an honest assessment.

Michael was a graduate student at Georgia Tech in the 1990s, working on his doctorate in atmospheric chemistry, an interest that developed during his years in smoggy Los Angeles. At that time, in Atlanta, most efforts to control ozone were concentrated on reducing VOCs, using strategies developed in western landscapes like LA that focused on reducing vehicle emissions. This approach was not working in our tree-covered city because trees are a natural source for large volumes of VOCs.

In order to improve air quality in Atlanta and meet federal requirements, scientists began to realize that the primary focus needed to be on emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx), a byproduct of the combustion process. Power plants and other industrial facilities could burn less or install expensive control technologies.

Before the electric utilities were willing to make large investments, they wanted proof that the control measures would work. Michael and his colleagues at Georgia Tech embarked on a ten-year study which concluded in 2000 that, without a doubt, the only way to clean up the Atlanta region’s air was to control NOx at power plants and similar facilities in the region – and even those impacting the city’s air quality from some distance away.

When elected officials and business leaders learned that no federal transportation funds could be spent in the Atlanta region until it complied with clean air laws, the seriousness of the situation finally hit home and things started happening – fast. The players were suddenly willing to make concessions; a new regional transportation agency was created; and scrubbers were installed on power plants. The fact that newer cars were getting more miles per gallon and lower emissions per mile also helped.

In 2017, monitoring data showed that ozone levels met the national standard on ninety-four percent of summer days, meaning that it was “safe” for the young, elderly and those with respiratory problems to go outside. Another study documented fewer emergency room visits for asthma and other lung problems over the fifteen year period, thanks to improvements in air quality.

At the Tech Square Starbucks on a summer afternoon under clear blue skies, Michael Chang is smiling. He’s seen real measurable progress in his career and he’s been a key part of the solution. In fact, he’d like to organize a party to celebrate the good news and thank all the players. He said: “It’s one of the few visible environmental success stories in our time. It was the right scale, the right moment in time, the right use of scientific data and the right personal relationships.”

We both know that there is still much to be done, including continued air quality monitoring and opposition to proposed rollbacks to the environmental laws that made this success possible. In the meantime, it feels good to celebrate.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.