Jason Winters is the Summerville, Ga., Chattooga County commissioner.Photo by Allison Kwesell
Below are the four Georgia counties that have joined forces and are seeking to be released from a mandate to sell low-sulfur gasoline:
Since 2003, gas stations in Chattooga County, Ga., and 44 other counties surrounding Atlanta have had to sell low-sulfur gasoline meant to improve the state capital's air quality.
County residents haven't been happy about that, Chattooga Sole Commissioner Jason Winters said, because low-sulfur gas is 10 to 20 cents more expensive per gallon than gas in nearby counties that aren't under the air-quality mandate, such as Walker, Catoosa, Dade and Floyd counties.
"It costs our county citizens more to fuel up their cars, and there's no need for it," Winters said.
Chattooga has about 27,000 residents and is 75 miles from Atlanta as the brown thrasher -- Georgia's state bird -- flies.
"Any air from Chattooga County is not hurting Atlanta. I don't know of any major polluters [here]," Winters said. "We don't feel like we should be punished for the air-quality standards in Atlanta."
Winters hopes that Chattooga and three other counties all with about the same population and distance from Atlanta -- Madison, Putnam and Jones -- can escape the low-sulfur gas requirement.
That's because, for the first time, the federal EPA determined about a year ago that metro Atlanta met federal air-quality standards established in 1997 for ozone and fine particulate matter.
In April, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division sent a formal request to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to classify metro Atlanta as having attained the standards.
The EPA has 18 months to respond, said Dawn Harris-Young, spokeswoman for the EPA's Atlanta office. That means its decision could come in the fall.
"All I can say is, stay tuned," she said.
If the EPA clears it, then officials in Chattooga, Madison, Putham and Jones counties -- who have formed what they call the Atlanta Gas Committee -- hope the Georgia Environmental Protection Division can release them from the low-sulfur fuel requirement.
One factor that drives up the price at the pump in Chattooga County, Winters said, is that gas stations there have to truck in low-sulfur gasoline from Atlanta-area gasoline terminals. If the low-sulfur requirement is dropped, gas stations could bring in gas from terminals that are closer in Rome, Ga.; Chattanooga; or Anniston, Ala., he said.
"Our fuel suppliers are having to send fuel trucks all the way to Atlanta and back," Winters said. "I don't see where we should be required to send fuel transport trucks 90 miles when we could do it in 20."
Sulfur "poisons" the catalytic converter on a vehicle's exhaust system, so low-sulfur gas improves the effectiveness of the pollution-reduction device.
Low-sulfur gas also produces fewer volatile organic compounds, which combine in the presence of sunlight with nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone -- more commonly known as smog.
Georgia is reviewing its requirements for low-sulfur gas near Atlanta, partly because new federal requirements have made the overall fuel supply cleaner, said William Cook, manager of the Engines and Fuels Unit of the EPD's Mobile and Area Sources Program.
Limiting sulfur doesn't have too much impact on Atlanta-area smog, he said, because vegetation releases volatile organic compounds that combine with nitrogen oxides to form ozone.
"That doesn't have a strong impact ... on the formation of ozone," Cook said. "Even if you could cut all manmade hydrocarbon emissions, there's still enough coming off plants."
Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the EPA is moving toward "Tier 3" gasoline standards that would reduce fuel's sulfur content nationwide.
"By the time Chattooga County goes through the process, it may be moot," she said.
"Clean air protections have saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and prevented countless asthma attacks, heart attacks, premature deaths and other illnesses," Kiernan said. "Cleaner gasoline in Chattooga County results in safer air and healthier families and shouldn't be rolled back."
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.