The EPA Once Said This Was The Dirtiest City In America. Now It’s One Of Our Greenest

People in Chattanooga used to drive with their headlights on in the daytime

Image of Chattanooga in the 1950s via Flickr user Brent Moore (cc)

Chattanooga, Tennessee was once so choked with smog and pollution that, as reported by CNBC, “people had to drive with their headlights on all day.” The federal organization that would become the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the city the most polluted in America, with dangerously dirty air full of ozone, particulates, and other toxins. That was 1969. Today, this city of hills and hollows nestled at the foot of the Appalachian mountains is a mecca of green technology. Outside magazine twice voted Chattanooga the number one spot for outdoor activities, from canoeing to triathlons and rock climbing, and the city was recently ranked No. 12 among the top 15 metro areas in the U.S. for seeing the most improvement in air quality—with 66 percent of days having good air quality in 2014.

How did the city transform itself? “There was a huge push to turn the city around and make it inviting. We began with all electric, emission free shuttle busses,” says Andrew Griffin Frye, a power utilization engineer at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the country’s largest public utility, spanning 80,000 square miles across parts of seven Southeastern states. “They are the anchor of downtown activity.” Downtown spans about sixteen blocks, looping around the city’s world famous aquarium. The free shuttle carries a million passengers a year, both visitors and residents, and has been a driving force in the transformation in Chattanooga transportation.

Bike-sharing in Chattanooga. Image via Flickr user nateClicks (cc)

In 2012, the city added Bike Chattanooga, a bike-sharing program that has been a model for mid-size cities globally. The largest bikeshare in the southeast, it offers 300 bicycles at 33 stations, With an annual membership and the swipe of a credit card, members can bike 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Philip Pugliese, President of Prova Group, a transportation consulting service that runs the bikeshare, says 500,000 miles have already been clocked by residents. Ben Taylor, with the Chattanooga Department of Transportation (CDOT), which owns and operates Bike Chattanooga, says he “can’t count” the number of cities calling and visiting to learn how to start a bikeshare, including Portland, Oregon, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Adding to the bikeshare, the city is launching an electric car-sharing program at the end of the summer. Twenty Nissan Leafs will be available for hourly rental, and the car-charging courts will also be available to any resident with an electric or hybrid vehicle to charge their own car for free. The cost of the electricity to run the cars will be offset by three solar power generation sites currently being installed. “This car share program touches on public health ideals,” says Stefanie deOlloqui, an environmental health specialist with Prova Group. “Zero emission vehicles promote clean air. Increased transportation choice allows people to access new parts of their community. Being part of this movement, makes people feel more connected. It is all about improving quality of life.”

Meanwhile, the state has shut down all but five of its coal plants. One pollutant emitted by coal plants is nitric oxide (NOX). In early June, the EPA announced that the Tennessee Valley achieved “attainment” on NOX emissions. “Now the biggest NOX source in the Valley is cars,” says Scott Fiedler of the TVA. “Electric vehicles are the next logical step.”

Chattanooga attracts carbon-aware companies that wish to cut their carbon footprint, according to Karen Utt, TVA’s Senior Program Manager for Climate Policy. This is in part because the city is in a carbon “sweet spot,” with carbon neutral hydroelectric and nuclear power. The electric rate is lower than the national average, as well as carbon competitive. “Companies can make the argument that a plant in the Valley deserves an expansion or that a new businesses should locate here,” says Utt.

Sunset over Sequatchie Valley. Image via Flickr user Jimmy Emerson, DVM (cc)

Meanwhile, the now-clean air, scenic hills and valleys, and the winding river have attracted outdoor enthusiasts. The city hosts an annual IronMan and half-Ironman triathlon. Twenty-four thousand square miles of the Cumberland Plateau splinter near Chattanooga to form gorgeous ridges and gorges, suspended a thousand feet over the Tennessee River, suitable for rock climbing. And the plateau’s Sequatchie Valley is a green oasis favored by hang-gliders. They float, soar and dip through clean, crisp air.

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