By 2018, the air quality in North Texas is projected to be among the worst in the country.
That’s according to a recent ozone study by the Environmental Protection Agency. And we won’t be alone. Baltimore, Houston, and New York City are also expected to exceed EPA’s safe ozone limit (75 parts per billion).
North Texans should definitely be concerned. More ozone above a city means more smog, and more smog means more health concerns, including heart and lung problems, bronchitis, and asthma.
The air got so bad in the 10-county area of North Texas in 2012 that the EPA forced the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to come up with an ozone-reduction plan by July 2015. TCEQ met the submission deadline, but not everyone is happy with the proposal.
The plan, according to Jim Schermbeck, director of the air pollution awareness group Downwinders at Risk, relies heavily on hypothetical improvements to gasoline quality and does little to address pollution from industrial sources.
“This is an assembly-line process that’s gone on since the 1990s” in Texas, he said.
In the past, he said, the state played by the EPA’s rules, however reluctantly. Under Gov. Rick Perry, though, Schermbeck said, TCEQ became less transparent and much less willing to comply with EPA regulations.
Part of the problem, he added, is that TCEQ does its own research, or air modeling, meaning that the agency can adjust its findings to suit its needs –– most states outsource their air modeling to assumedly unbiased independent contractors.
In an e-mail, TCEQ spokesperson Linda Wheeler confirmed Schermbeck’s statement. Her agency has done its own air modeling since 1992 with two exceptions, including a 1997 air quality plan by Environ Corp.
The last time TCEQ submitted an air-quality plan for North Texas was four years ago. The plan allowed for a rise in smog-causing ozone emissions. Schermbeck was shocked the EPA approved the plan, but he hopes things will be different this time around.
The EPA has 18 months to either accept Texas’ ozone-reduction plan or reject it. If the EPA rejects it, they have the option of imposing their own plan within two years of the rejection. During that time, the EPA can mandate reductions on new emission sources in North Texas and withhold non-safety-related federal highway funds.
“We’re asking the EPA to reject the plan and start over with a plan that actually cleans our air,” said John MacFarlane, conservation chairperson of the Sierra Club of Greater Fort Worth.
Texas, he continued, “has not addressed tracking all the emissions from gas drilling and compressors, pipelines, and all the methane that escapes from them or considered the coal fire plants in East Texas.”
TCEQ, Wheeler said, already uses 30 regulations to limit the amount of nitrogen oxide (a gas that contributes greatly to ozone depletion) released at “cement plants, electric utilities, and both natural gas production and transmission” plants.
Schermbeck and MacFarlane are asking concerned residents to write or e-mail EPA directors Ron Curry and Gina McCarthy and urge them to reject TCEQ’s plan. While it would be unusual for the EPA to force a state to comply, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 1990, Wisconsin filed suit against the EPA to force neighboring Chicago to adhere to federal ozone standards, and in 2012, the federal agency oversaw a plan to lower emissions in Nevada.
The EPA could not be reached for comment, but in a recent public statement, the federal agency wrote, “It is difficult to see how [North Texas] would reach attainment in 2018” based on the state’s current plan. “We believe it is likely that additional reductions will be needed” to meet EPA requirements.
Should the EPA approve the plan, Schermbeck said his group would consider filing a lawsuit to force Texas to lower emissions in North Texas, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that. His group is releasing a comprehensive report that will systematically outline the shortcomings in Texas’ plan this fall. He is also putting together a rally, Get Tough on Texas, outside of the EPA’s regional headquarters in Dallas in late November.
“This has now reached the level of The Theater of the Absurd,” Schermbeck said. “The good thing is that the state’s plan is insufficient, and the EPA is finally calling B.S. on it. There’s a Clean Air Act. Texas should have to abide by that act.”