Environs Agreeing on Air

by Robert Bryce

It's hard to find issues on which environmentalists and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce can agree. But when it comes to air quality, development interests and environmentalists both say Austin needs to improve its air quality.

Why? Austin's air quality is deteriorating. (For details on the city's recently released study on air quality, see Naked City, p. 17) If it continues to worsen and ground-level ozone levels continue to rise, Austin could be hit with a panoply of regulations under the Clean Air Act which could cost local taxpayers millions of dollars. While Austin has not exceeded the federally imposed limit of 120 parts per billion (ppb) of ground level ozone since 1985, "average readings are a lot higher this year," says Lisa Hannemann, an air quality specialist with the city's Environmental and Conservation Services Department. By the middle of last week, Austin had already had 23 ozone alert days this year. Last year, the city had 15.

"Last year, we had only three days over 100 ppb," says Hannemann. "This year, we've had eight. We've also been looking at the number of hours over 80 ppb. Because that's what the American Lung Association considers an unhealthful level. And that trend of number of hours over 80 is going up."

Two years ago, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (GACC), the Austin Real Estate Council, Travis County, and the Austin Transportation Study decided to raise awareness of the air quality issue. They created the Austin Air Force, a group of about two dozen individuals, which has studied ways to improve the city's air quality. They have been key players in getting the media to publicize ozone alert days, during which citizens are encouraged not to drive, mow the grass, or re-fuel their cars. While it's difficult to assess the effectiveness of the ozone alert days, media coverage has been extensive, and Austin has been able to stay under the 120 ppb level.

But if the city exceeds the 120 ppb level four times in three years, we'll join four other Texas metropolitan areas - Dallas- Fort Worth, Houston-Galveston, Beaumont-Port Arthur, and El Paso - as "non-attainment" areas. Originally passed by Congress in 1970, the Clean Air Act was revised in 1990. The revisions toughened ambient air standards and imposed federal guidelines on cities that do not attain federal clean air goals. For the four Texas metropolitan areas, compliance with the Clean Air Act may cost half a billion dollars or more. The regulations hit a broad cross section of industries, from auto body repair shops and dry cleaners to gasoline retailers.

That's why the GACC is interested. "It's very undesirable to become a non-attainment area," says GACC president Glenn West. While West didn't say so, it is clear that city boosters realize that federally mandated clean air regulations will cost industry a lot of money and may hamper the city's ability to attract new industries. West said the city may have done enough already. Federal regulations are "a moving target," he said. "It's not impossible that the federal regulations might be changed."

For the moment, West is happy with what the city is doing in terms of air quality. "It's a matter of awareness as much as anything," he said. "I don't know that it needs to be a big budget program."

The city council apparently agrees. For the next fiscal year, the city has allocated $107,449 for air quality programs. More than half of that will be spent on a media campaign to promote awareness of the ozone issue; $38,000 will go for ambient air monitoring at Bergstrom Air Force Base, and the rest will be spent on programs to encourage fleet owners to switch their vehicles to cleaner burning fuels.

Last week, the council passed a resolution sponsored by Councilmembers Max Nofziger and Jackie Goodman that could lead to tougher enforcement of the state law regarding vehicles which produce "excessive fumes or smoke." The resolution directs the city manager to remind Austin Police Department officers of the importance of enforcing the state law, and APD officers may soon be attending classes at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to learn more about the issue.

George Avery, an environmentalist and member of the city's Environmental Board, appreciates the council action, but thinks it doesn't go far enough. "The council should take this thing a little more seriously," he said. "They don't look at the air quality issue as serious and I'm afraid they won't do it until it's too late."

Avery and others are lobbying for increased spending on air quality programs. In all, they want to spend about $300,000 in city funds over the next year for a variety of programs, including completion of the city's bicycle master plan. They also want to create a program to encourage gas stations to install fuel vapor recovery systems, and another to reduce air pollutants from power plants and boilers.

Avery acknowledges that proposed changes in federal law, and the suspension of the vehicle emissions program by the Texas Legislature, could signal the dissipation of some federal clean air regulations. "But even a mild form of the Clean Air Act will mandate a lot of changes," says Avery.

There seems to be a lot of interest in the Austin's air quality. Dozens of people attended a public hearing on the issue on August 30. And the city is spending money to address the problem. But air quality is a much more difficult issue to tackle than, say, water quality. And with Congress currently discussing ways to weaken the Clean Air Act, Austin and many other cities have been left wondering how clean the air really needs to be. Meanwhile, Austin is growing rapidly, with more and more vehicles creating increasing amounts of pollution. Perhaps Austin can circumvent federal air rules for a while longer. Then again, it may be just a matter of time before Austin has the same air quality problems now facing bigger cities. n FELD QUITS UT, BASHES DOLLAR BILL. Concluding that working at the University of Texas is morally repugnant, Steven Feld, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at UT, resigned his position.

In a stinging letter dated September 11, Feld told UT Chancellor William (Dollar Bill) Cunningham that he was quitting his position at UT because he could "no longer find it a morally acceptable place of employment." Feld placed the blame directly on Cunningham. "My work, for almost 20 years, has been committed to the causes of ecological and cultural integrity on the Melanesian island of New Guinea," wrote Feld. "By contrast, you have steered the University toward collaboration in environmental destruction and criminal abuses of human rights" in that region. "I am referring, of course, to your role on the Board of Directors of Freeport-McMoRan," said Feld.

Over the past few years, Feld has tried on numerous occasions to meet with Cunningham to discuss human rights abuses at the Freeport mine site in Irian Jaya, but Cunningham has refused. "Your lack of accountability presents the entire University community with a clear picture of arrogant disregard for democratic discussion," Feld wrote.

Along with his letter, Feld sent copies of numerous documents to Cunningham, including a report published last month by the Catholic Church of Jayapura, which detailed torture and murder at the Freeport mine. He also included the April report by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, called "Trouble at Freeport: Eyewitness Accounts of West Papuan Resistance to the Freeport-McMoRan Mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia and Indonesian Military Repression, June 1994-February 1995."

In his conclusion, Feld says, "This is more than a business conflict of interest. This is about how you have made the University complicit in Freeport's reckless destruction of the lives and lands of New Guineans colonized by Indonesia. For these reasons, my conscience and professional responsibility to Melanesian scholarship can no longer tolerate employment at The University of Texas at Austin." After completing the fall semester at UT, Feld will take a job at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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