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The history of air quality in Chattanooga

Catch up on Chattanooga’s air quality history before a public hearing concerning updates to the Air Pollution Control Ordinance and Regulations.

Rocks and trees in front of a thick cloud of fog.

A fogy day atop Lookout Mountain.

Photo by NOOGAtoday

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Today’s air quality: fair

Even with yesterday’s heavy fog and a less-than-perfect rating today, Chattanooga’s air quality is far better than what it once was. Chattanoogans have often heard of the days when our city was one of the most polluted in the US. In particular, our air quality was bad. Incredibly bad.

Not quite putting on airs

Due to Chattanooga’s landscape, which is susceptible to temperature inversions (read more about that here), along with its heavy industrial base, unregulated industry emissions, railroads, and coal furnaces, the city was a hotbed for air pollution back in the 1960s.

In 1969, it reached its peak when Chattanooga was deemed by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare one of the worst cities in the nation for particulate air pollution. That’s when the city, county, and citizens decided to make air pollution control regulations a priority. Later that year, Chattanoogans approved a new Air Pollution Control Ordinance, which led to our current Air Pollution Control Board and Bureau that enforces and recommends all air pollution control regulations.

In 1972, just three years after the ordinance was approved, 160 out of 200 industrial establishments were in compliance with federal‐state particulate standards, and most of the rest had approved compliance plans, according to an archived New York Times article.

At that time, the average level of particulates in the downtown air had reduced by 55% in three years. Almost a decade later, in 1981, Chattanooga celebrated another air pollution milestone — going a whole year without exceeding federal pollution safety standards, for the first time in history.

But that wasn’t the end of Chattanooga’s story with air quality.

In the late 1990s, federal regulations were tightened, which put the city in jeopardy of losing its federal standards attainment status. This eventually led to the creation of Chattanooga’s Early Action Compact — an agreement to take voluntary measures to clean up the air. As a result of the EAC, the community took various steps to improve air quality, including county-wide vehicle emissions testing (which, as of Jan. 14, 2022, is no longer required in Hamilton County), seasonal burning, and lowering truck speed limits on the interstate.

We reached attainment in 2007, just before the EPA tightened standards once more. But by the time the EPA tightened standards for a third time in 2015, Hamilton County was already rocking, rolling, and meeting the new standards.

Breathe easy, now

Now, our city and county’s air quality is better than ever, but The Air Pollution Control Board and Bureau still offers ways for you to help make a difference:

Want to get even more involved?

Interested citizens are invited to attend Air Pollution Control Board meetings, which are typically held on the first Monday of the month at 5 p.m. — and now is the perfect time to get involved.

Last month, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau made an announcement that it will be “revising and updating the Air Pollution Control Ordinance and Regulations for Hamilton County, Tennessee, and all included municipalities which will include revisions to the Hamilton County portion of the Tennessee State Implementation Plan for the attainment and maintenance of air quality.”

Have some thoughts? A public hearing about the updates will take place on Friday, Feb. 3 at 9 a.m. at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau’s office.

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