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Settlement puts brakes on 44 Atlanta road projects


Environmental lawsuit seen as test case in controversy over sprawl

June 22, 1999
Web posted at: 1:01 a.m. EDT (0501 GMT)

In this story:

Profitable sprawl vs. environmental concerns

Act designed to keep pollution down


ATLANTA (CNN) -- In an agreement that could have nationwide repercussions for growing suburban communities, four environmental groups settled a federal lawsuit Monday -- agreeing to allow 17 Atlanta-area road projects to proceed but killing 44 others.

The case, filed in Atlanta Federal District Court in January, cited 61 metro Atlanta road building or expansion projects for allegedly violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The suit's defendants, the federal and Georgia state transportation departments and the Atlanta Regional Commission, also agreed to withhold any future road building projects until they were proven to be in compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Plaintiffs in the case included the Sierra Club, the Georgia Conservancy, Georgians for Transportation Alternatives and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

CNN's Natalie Pawelski looks at the impact of the road settlement
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Their attorney, William Want, said the settlement will lay the groundwork for Atlanta to address its legendary traffic problems.

"Our goal was never to stop road building in Atlanta, but to ensure that the region's zeal for new highways did not choke its economy with smog and sprawl," he said.

Jim Durrett, vice president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, greeted the settlement as a mixed bag for the business community.

"Good or bad, it's getting at the heart of the issues involved with our transportation decisions," he said. "It's making people think."

Profitable sprawl vs. environmental concerns

While the lawsuit centered on the Clean Air Act and air quality in the Atlanta area, it garnered nationwide attention as one of the first test cases in the controversy over sprawl -- the rapid, sometimes uncontrolled growth of urban and suburban areas.

Sprawl is credited with bringing prosperity to communities on the fringes of metropolitan areas, but it is also cited as a cause of traffic, pollution, school crowding and the destruction of open space and wildlife.

Act designed to keep pollution down

The Clean Air Act restricts road projects in areas in chronic violation of ground-level ozone standards. Ozone, the same substance which at high altitudes protects the Earth from harmful radiation, is a pollutant at ground levels -- aggravating respiratory illnesses.

Ground-level ozone is largely produced by cars and trucks when their emissions react with light and heat. Atlanta ranks as one of the nation's most frequent violators of ground-level ozone standards -- violations which are most frequent during the hot summer months.

When metro Atlanta failed to meet a 1998 deadline for developing a transportation plan that would bring the area into Clean Air Act compliance, the federal government automatically cut off funding for the 61 projects.

But the governments used a "grandfathering" or exempting loophole to approve all the projects previously funded. That prompted the lawsuit by the environmental groups.

The settlement also requires the government agencies to:

  • Consider the impact of transportation projects on low-income and minority neighborhoods.

  • Submit transportation plans for review by air-quality scientists and by the environmental groups which brought the suit.

  • Conduct a comprehensive study of mass transit options for Atlanta's sprawling northern suburbs.

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    Welcome to the United States Environmental Protection Agency
      • Clean Air Act
    Atlanta Regional Commission
    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
    Georgia Dept. of Transportation home page
    Sierra Club
    The Georgia Conservancy
    Southern Environmental Law Center
    Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce
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