Every day, 78 percent of Cherokee County residents get in their cars, SUVs or trucks and head outside the county to work. Of that number, more than 100,000 people make the commute alone in their personal vehicles.
Cherokee is in close proximity to one of the largest coal fire power plants in the nation, considered among the worst pollutants in the country by some, with Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen just miles away in neighboring Bartow County.
Add the daily contributions from construction, road work and industry into the mix, and the air pollution and smog are taking their toll on the quality of air Cherokee residents are breathing in.
Brian Carr, director of communications for Georgia Clean Air Campaign, says that the silver lining to the cloud of smog is that in the last decade commuters are getting the message and air quality is improving.
“Half of smog-forming emissions in many areas throughout the state come from vehicle tailpipes,” said Carr. “As more commuters have gotten the message that there are other means of transportation, I am pleased to report that air quality is improving.”
The other 50 percent of smog-forming emissions come from coal fire power plants, construction equipment that is engine operated, bull dozers and industry, he said.
“Any time you have an industrial presence, there is going to be some of that type of fumes,” Carr said.
Although nonprofit environmental organizations such as the Georgia Sierra Club are concerned about the effects of coal burning plants such as Bowen, power company officials say steps are now being taken to decrease the pollution there.
This year’s cooler temperatures and record rainfall have also helped with the quality of air.
“We generally talk about two most prevalent types of pollution, ground-level ozone and particle pollution — soot or ash in the air, which can almost feel like a sunburn to the lungs,” Carr said.
Ground-level ozone is most likely to form during • .
dry and stagnant weather conditions, Carr said, and this year’s weather has helped with air pollution in the region.
Metro Atlanta hasn’t experienced any air quality exceedances so far in 2013, the Clean Air Campaign said. The last time the region got this far into the calendar year without an exceedance was 1997.
Cooler temperatures and more rain are contributing to the trend. Data shows that through May, the region had experienced 11 more inches of rainfall than 2012, a 68 percent increase.
“Metro Atlanta experienced 16 ozone exceedances in 2012, which is a big improvement to the 40 exceedances in 2011, but we did experience some of the worst individual air quality days in recent memory, including the first Code Purple since 2003,” Carr said.
While residents have a harder time contributing to lower particle pollution, they can help lower the pollution caused by vehicles, or ground-level ozone, the most common type of air pollution in metro Atlanta.
Carr stressed that how commuters handle their trip to work each day does have an impact on the quality of the air.
“I think there are a few different ways people can help, this represents a huge opportunity for commuters,” Carr said. “What commuters do contributes quickly to the air quality.
“For that Northwest Corridor, the longer cars are sitting there and not moving, the worse the air quality. Traffic has a huge impact,” he said. “Best case scenario is that planned road improvements will be years in development, so it is important for people to know their options.”
He suggested compressed work weeks, taking shifts off and tele-commuting as possible ways to help with the problem.
Clean Air Campaign also offers smog alerts. For more information on signing up, go to cleanaircampaign.org.
Power plant emissions
The debate continues about what air pollution is doing to the environment, global warming and greenhouse gases.
According to the EPA, greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer.
“Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years,” an EPA report reads. “The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.”
The EPA shows the causes of greenhouse gases as:
• Electricity production: 33 percent of 2011 greenhouse gas emissions — Electricity production generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. More than 70 percent of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas;
• Transportation: 28 percent of 2011 greenhouse gas emissions — Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 90 percent of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes gasoline and diesel;
• Industry: 20 percent of 2011 greenhouse gas emissions — Greenhouse gas emissions from industry primarily come from burning fossil fuels for energy as well as greenhouse gas emissions from certain chemical reactions necessary to produce goods from raw materials;
• Commercial and residential: 11 percent of 2011 greenhouse gas emissions — Greenhouse gas emissions from businesses and homes arise primarily from fossil fuels burned for heat, the use of certain products that contain greenhouse gases, and the handling of waste;
• Agriculture: 8 percent of 2011 greenhouse gas emissions — Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production; and
• Land Use and Forestry: offset of 14 percent of 2011 greenhouse gas emissions — Land areas can act as a sink (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere) or a source of greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, since 1990, managed forests and other lands have absorbed more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit.
For Seth Gunnin — Beyond Coal project organizer for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club — what is being done is too little too late and he wants to see more solar power used in the state and tougher regulations for existing power plants enforced.
“The fine particulate matter gets down into our lungs, our respiratory system, causing illness and other breathing issues,” Gunnin said. “In Bartow, Plant Bowen is one of the largest coal power plants in the country, and it’s also one of the largest polluters in the country for a number of pollutants. Last I checked, it is the third largest greenhouse gas polluter in the country, which is responsible for climate changes.”
Gunnin said his organization is working locally to do air pollution modeling to indicate where the pollution plumb from Plant Bowen goes.
“We can actually show what streets, neighborhoods and homes are getting the worst pollution from the plant,” Gunnin said of the study expected to be complete in August.
But officials with Georgia Power Co. say the power plant is already doing a good job of keeping emissions down.
Company spokesman Brian Green said not only is Plant Bowen one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country, but is also one of the most well-controlled.
“Georgia Power has invested over a billion dollars into state-of-the-art emissions controls for Plant Bowen including installation of selective catalytic reduction controls (SCRs) for reduction of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions and installation of flue gas desulphurization scrubbers for removal of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions,” Green said.
Installation of the controls has resulted in decreases of more than 80 percent in NOx emissions more than 95 percent in SO2 emissions, and more than 80 percent in mercury emissions from Plant Bowen, he said.
Georgia Power is in the process of installing additional mercury controls that will further reduce mercury emissions from Plant Bowen by 2016.
Gunnin is still concerned.
“Coal naturally has high concentrations of heavy metals, and when you burn coal, they don’t burn off, such as mercury, arsenic, chromium and uranium, and many more naturally occurring, you are burning off the carbon, and putting it in coal ash, which they store in 100-acre pools,” the Sierra Club activist said. “It is getting into the waterways, and it can contribute to water pollution as far away as Augusta.”
Gunnin said he agrees with members of the tea party, who recently lobbied and won a battle for more solar use in Georgia.
“Georgia Power has a large potential for solar power. The cost of producing solar power has dropped so drastically, that adopting it can reduce rates by millions of dollars,” Gunnin said. “I do this to leave a better place for our children, and I can find places where I agree with the tea party.”
The task is enormous to move away from fossil fuels and find safe alternatives.
Canton resident Roy Taylor, a citizen activist with Cherokee Transitions Green, said the community needs to search for more easily implemented improvements, such as using the local bus service to offer transportation to jobs within Cherokee County, and pushing for all-day public transportation and bus service to Atlanta and the metro region, instead of just the buses taken by commuters morning and evening.
“The air pollution that is man-made in this area is significantly from transportation,” Taylor said. “The commuter service is getting good ridership, and it is great, but we need regular service in addition. The local bus service should offer routes to area employment centers at times when workers need them.”
The U.S. government continues to take small steps towards combating climate change, and has the opportunity to make even more substantial progress in some sectors of the economy. However, all progress will for the foreseeable future need to be in the areas of regulation, research and innovation. Congress will not play a proactive role in tackling the complex challenges of climate change and may seek to limit the Administration’s authority to address global warming pollution.
Nationally, the Clean Air Task Force is attempting to work with the administration and leaders in Congress to develop climate policies and regulations grounded in science, technology and the law.
“Our record of providing non-partisan, data-driven analysis has won the trust of Senate and House members and staff, helping identify and defend policy designs that will achieve the greatest climate benefit at the least cost,” the task force’s website reads.
At least for now, the impact Cherokee County residents can make on air pollution is to examine daily routines and look for ways to reduce trips and carpool or use commuter transportation.
Each year, the average Atlanta commuter spends 51 hours in standstill traffic and about $4,000 on commute costs, which equates to about $16 per day in gas and car expenses. Choosing transit even occasionally can add up to significant cost and time savings over the course of a year, according to the Clean Air Campaign.