A Breath of Fresh Air? 

The polluted air in Shelby County gives new meaning to the term "Dirty South."

But last week, Mayor A C Wharton vowed to clean up the smog by designating May as Clean Air Month. At a ceremony held outside the Shelby County Building, officials introduced a plan to run county fleet vehicles and MATA buses on biodiesel and a revamped Memphis Area RideShare program.

"Summer's coming, and ozone season is approaching. We thought Clean Air Month would be a great way to raise awareness," said Ronné Atkins, the county's Air Quality Coordinator.

One project Atkins announced calls for vehicles in the county's fleet to run on biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from soybean oil. The county will use a blend containing only 20 percent petroleum.

The county was awarded $11,000 in federal funds to build a biodiesel fueling station at Shelby Farms. After a short test period with a few vehicles, the county may use biodiesel for its entire fleet of diesel engines. The county's general services division expects to begin work on the fueling station by early summer.

MATA will also be testing biodiesel in 25 of its smaller vehicles, while a control group of 25 similar vehicles will continue to use regular diesel. After a three-month test, if MATA finds that biodiesel reduces emissions without causing engine wear, it may switch more buses to the fuel.

"Memphis is taking a big step," said Andrew Couch from the Clean Cities Coalition of West Tennessee, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about alternative fuels. "Very soon, there will be a biodiesel plant in Orange Mound and one in North Memphis. They're popping up everywhere."

Couch says switching to biodiesel not only helps reduce carbon emissions, it also reduces dependence on foreign oil. MATA's test fuel comes from Arkansas.

The county will also retrofit several school buses with technology to reduce emissions. The Memphis Area Metropolitan Planning Organization awarded the school system $400,000 to equip buses with special mufflers and emissions filtration systems.

"These changes will result in 40 to 50 percent less pollutants emitted from school buses," said Atkins. "This is for outdoor air quality, but it will also improve indoor air quality. Children on the bus breathe four times more toxins than someone driving behind the bus."

Since the city school system does not own the buses it uses, the district was not included in the scope of the project.

The county has also revamped the Memphis Area RideShare Program, a free commuter matching service for car and van pools. According to Atkins, the old program was underutilized and not well organized.

"We have a software program, and you go online and fill out an application," said Carol Adams with RideShare. "It asks where you work, where you live, what hours you work. It'll match you with similar people who live in the general area."

Once matched, commuters take turns driving and share the expense. In case of emergency, RideShare offers six free cab rides home each year. They've also partnered with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which will donate vans for larger groups of commuters to use.

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Shelby County as a "non-attainment" area, meaning the county was in violation of federal air-quality standards for ozone pollution. The EPA gave the county until June 2007 to clear up the problem.

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