A clean, pristine environment is good for Georgia’s economy, Gov. Nathan Deal told a group of Gwinnett County community and environmental leaders at the Infinite Energy Center on Tuesday.
Deal was in Duluth for Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful’s annual Governor’s Environmental Address luncheon and this year’s speech primarily focused on two areas: Addressing air pollution and preserving Georgia’s natural beauty. He used to the event to frame the importance of environmental conservation within the context of economic development.
“A lot of times, people would say you can’t have economic growth, job growth and at the same time maintain the kind of environment that you want,” Deal said. “That these are mutually exclusive, that they are diametrically opposites in many people’s minds and that you can’t continue to sustain job growth and new industry at the same time you are maintaining an ecological balance.
“I’m here to tell you that notion is just wrong. Georgia is demonstrating that it is wrong.”
The governor said addressing traffic congestion on metro Atlanta’s roads, including its interstate highways, not only helps get commuters to and from their jobs in a more timely fashion, it also helps reduce air pollution by having less cars idling on roadways.
Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful Executive Director Schelly Marlatt said the pollution created by car emissions by itself is an example of why addressing traffic congestion is important.
“More cars on the road emit more pollution and more pollution in the air is bad for the environment,” Marlatt said. “These are things that our children and future generations are going to have to deal with.”
Deal pointed to the state including funding for local transit systems in its current budget, as well as work to expand the state’s network on high-occupancy toll lanes as signs of the effort to reduce congestion.
The state currently has 16 miles of toll lanes on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett, but that stretch is being expanded by another 10 miles to the Hamilton Mill area. New HOT lanes are also being built on Interstate 75 in Cobb County and Henry County.
“If you can keep vehicles moving and reduce congestion, people are not just sitting there with their engines running, which contributes to air pollution,” Deal said. “They’re not sitting there voluntarily. They are wanting to be somewhere and are having a difficult time getting there.”
The governor also addressed the impact that state emissions and burn ban rules, voluntary school bus retrofit programs and encouraging teleworking and vanpooling have had on local air quality.
He said the state is trying to stay within guidelines and mandates set by federal environmental regulators, particularly those that deal with the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. He added Georgia recently reached a milestone in that effort.
“According to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the 13-county metropolitan Atlanta area has met the one hour federal standard for ground-level ozone and the eight-hour federal standard on 75 parts-per-billion,” he said. “(That’s) something we have never done before until this last year, and we are pleased and proud of that.”
Deal added the American Lung Association recently released a report that said metro Atlanta’s air is the cleanest its been in more than a decade.
Residents can also monitor work the state is doing to address transportation issues by visiting a new website, www.GAroads.org, the governor added.
He also said maintaining the natural beauty of Georgia’s 63 state parks helps the tourism industry by providing places that attract tourists from other parts of the state, and from around the rest of the world.
Georgia is visited by about 100 million tourists annually, while the tourism industry has an impact of about $58.9 billion on the state’s economy, Deal said. Part of that is the attraction of Georgia’s larger cities, and sports venues in the state, but the governor said it goes beyond those attractions.
“They’re not just coming to be in our big cities,” he said. “They’re coming to see the natural wonders all across our state, from our seashores to our mountains and literally everything in between.
“That’s just one of the reasons why I think it’s important for us to be as dedicated as this Keep Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful organization is to keeping our natural resources protected in every way we can.”
Marlatt said that beauty is a huge draw for people, especially visitors who want an outdoor recreation experience.
“Georgia isn’t just about Atlanta anymore,” she said. “We have Lake Lanier. Gwinnett County parks is nationally recognized and an upper echelon park system in the United States. We have mountains. We have beaches. There are so many things in Georgia that make people want to come here.”
There is also the issue of water rights to be dealt with, but Deal said he could not talk about it during his address. That is because a judge has issued a gag order in the ongoing legal battle between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over access to water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
Still, the governor praised Gwinnett’s efforts to clean and return water Lake Lanier that its residents have used.
“I hold Gwinnett County up as the one great example of a community that’s dedicated its own resources to treating wastewater to return it back to Lake Lanier and our river corridors,” he said.
“If we were able to have that done by every community in our state, we would have a much better argument with the Corps of Engineers about getting credit for returned flows when they are cleaned to the standards that Gwinnett has set.”