- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

MACON, Ga. (AP) - Four years after he left office, former Houston County Commission Chairman Ned Sanders is still performing an important civic duty.

The commission recently reappointed Sanders to another term on the Middle Georgia Clean Air Coalition, which has a mission of keeping the region in compliance with federal clean air standards. That is critically important to Robins Air Force Base and the prospects of bringing new industry to the area.

Sanders spearheaded the coalition’s founding in 2004 when the region was determined not to be in compliance with clean air standards.

He has served on the board ever since, including some yearlong stints as chairman, including this year.

Sanders never planned to stay on the coalition after he left office at the end of 2010, but new Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker asked him to continue representing the county. Sanders agreed.

The coalition’s bylaws state that the commission chairman of each of the seven member counties will serve on the board, but the chairman can designate someone. Stalnaker said he asked Sanders to remain in the position because he knows more about the issue than anyone else.

“He’s extremely smart, and he studies a lot on a lot of different topics,” Stalnaker said. “When he makes a commitment to doing something, he’s going to give it 110 percent.”

Sanders, 83, said the issue is important to him not only because of the potential economic impact but also the public health implications. Areas with high ground-level ozone levels are thought to be particularly hard on the elderly and children.

He also is staying on the board because of a promise he made years ago. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has only one ground-level ozone sensor in Middle Georgia, and that’s in Bibb County. When that sensor showed a high level of ground-level ozone in 2003, Houston and Monroe counties by default also were in nonattainment status, which impacts the ability to lure new industry, new missions at Robins and highway funding.

After the Middle Georgia Clean Air Coalition formed, Sanders went to Washington and pleaded with an EPA official to take Houston off of the noncompliance list.

“I said, ‘If Houston County is taken off of preliminary nonattainment, I give you my word we will not fold up our tent and go home,’” Sanders recalled. “I’ve kept that commitment to this very day, because I just felt like it was a personal commitment I made.”

The coalition’s efforts to reduce pollution levels have largely revolved around promoting alternative fuel use. The group has used federal grant money to buy alternative fuel vehicles for local governments.

One of the biggest things that has helped, Sanders said, is the billions of dollars that Georgia Power has invested in power plants to reduce pollution, including Plant Scherer in Monroe County.

Bibb County currently is in compliance with clean air standards, but only barely. The maximum for attainment is 75 parts of ground level ozone per billion. Bibb now sits at about 74 parts per billion.

There is speculation that could change, with the EPA lowering the standard possibly as far as 60 parts per billion. That could have major implications if another Base Realignment and Closure Commission comes calling. Sanders said the chances are “not good” the region could be below the 60 standard by the next BRAC.

Although the base fared well in the last BRAC in 2005, despite the nonattainment status of Bibb, Sanders said there’s no way to be sure it won’t be a factor in the next BRAC. If there is a choice between closing Robins and another base, and all else is equal, the air quality issue could make the difference, he said.

“When you are faced with a BRAC, you don’t want to have any red flags that can be used as negative discriminators,” Sanders said.

There’s a lot that can impact pollution levels that no one locally can control, Sanders said. No one in Middle Georgia can stop all the traffic on the two major interstates that come through the area. But Sanders said federal initiatives to promote fuel efficiency in cars and alternative fuel usage are helping with the local efforts.

Weather also can be a factor, he said, because winds can blow pollution in from other areas.

That makes it seem a tough job is ahead to keep the area in compliance and even more so to try to meet a possible lower limit. It’s a job that requires tenacious leadership, and no one doubts Sanders is up to the task.

Sanders was a C-130 pilot in Vietnam and flew more than 218 combat missions. He hauled troops and cargo into areas that were too dangerous for ground convoys.

But that may not be where he has most demonstrated his resolve. He ran for various offices and lost seven times before he was elected county commission chairman.

Commissioner Tom McMichael said he shudders to think where Middle Georgia might be if not for Sanders’ efforts with the clean air issue.

“Everybody bought into the sermon he was preaching,” McMichael said. “He is the authority on the Clean Air Coalition.”

His job on the Clean Air Coalition isn’t the only duty is still performs from his days as commission chairman. He was also reappointed last week to another term on the Perry-Houston County Airport Authority, and he will serve as president of the Warner Robins Rotary Club next year.

He hasn’t flown in four years, but he plans to take his physical to renew his license. If he passes, he expects to buy a plane. He runs or walks two miles every other day, and on the days in between he does 25 push-ups and 20 situps.

“I have a philosophy that as you get older, the last thing you want to do is stay home and be a recluse,” he said. “You don’t want to look at four walls, and you don’t want to watch television. The only time I watch television is for a good college football game.”

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Information from: The Macon Telegraph, https://www.macontelegraph.com

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