Naked City

The city makes plans to reduce ground-level ozone in order to comply with an EPA-mandated cleanup schedule.

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Cleaning Solution

When Governor George W. Bush and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission bargained with the Environmental Protection Agency in June over whether the Austin, San Antonio, and Tyler-Longview areas would be labeled "non-attaining" under the federal Clean Air Act, they bought the cities in question a six-month reprieve. But the pressure for local government to reduce ozone levels is on.

The EPA is set to rule again on whether the areas will be classified non-attaining based on ozone levels in the air in early 2001, after the Supreme Court reviews a lawsuit concerning the legality of the EPA standards in December. As part of the bargaining process, the TNRCC proposed that in exchange for a deferred non-attainment classification, the state would implement an Accelerated Attainment Agreement, which would jump-start the ozone cleanup process.

However, with the TNRCC tied up in industry lawsuits and the permit applications process, a heavy portion of the responsibility for instituting the agreement will fall on the shoulders of local government, which lacks the state agency's ability to wield legislative pressure. "The EPA encourages local officials to work closely with area residents and stakeholders to take whatever steps are possible," says EPA spokesman Dave Bary.

In late June, Gov. Bush said in a letter to Regional EPA Administrator Gregg Cooke that the plans being instituted would "cut ozone in half across eastern Texas." In Austin, where ozone levels have been above federal limits for three years and where continued growth can be expected to at least partially offset the effects of any reforms, local officials are bracing themselves for a struggle on a tight deadline.

A technical advisory committee is working with a regional board of elected officials to devise ozone cleanup strategies which will be tested for effectiveness in October or November.

The proposed strategies include:

  • Reducing total employee trips made by government and private employers by as much as 15% over the next three years through policies like telecommuting and alternative work weeks, and by providing incentives for employees to find alternatives to commuting in single-occupant vehicles. Programs like this are slowly being implemented in the Dallas area, and some high tech employers in Austin have expressed interest, Mayor Kirk Watson's office says. But the extent to which HOV (carpool) lanes and similar incentives will cut down on ozone depends on how many people participate in incentive programs; so far, the examples set by Dallas and Houston have provided only limited reason for hope.

  • Encouraging state and local government entities to participate in Austin Energy's "Green Choice" program. Green Choice power will be produced entirely from natural sources such as wind and solar energy, and would replace energy produced by power plants using fossil fuels, which contribute to nitrogen oxide emissions. Green Choice participation by at least 60 government entities could reduce emissions by up to 400 pounds per day. The TNRCC and the Governor's Mansion have already agreed to participate in Green Choice. (Only 58 more government entities to go!)

  • Instituting use of Progressive Insurance's "Pay-as-you-drive" insurance policy. Under this policy, insurance rates are largely dependent on where, when, and how much a person drives; drivers who drive less are charged less. However, the policies are based on monitoring by the Global Positioning System, which is included only in newer (and more expensive) cars.

    Meanwhile, the city of Austin itself has begun to institute measures designed to cut down on the number of commuter trips made by its employees. City employees have been telecommuting, car-pooling, and working longer hours in four-day blocks. The measures are intended to provide a challenge for other government offices, and eventually private-sector employers, to do the same.

    "Any effort that will reduce vehicle miles traveled will result in an improvement in air quality because it will cut down on the amount of emissions produced," says Bary. "The big question is whether it will be enough."

    Admittedly, fewer commuter trips by city staff members won't lower ozone readings by the January deadline -- full implementation of the plan, if it's approved, isn't planned until 2003. The regulations, according to city staff, are intended primarily as a buffer to an expected non-attainment ruling.

    If the EPA finds the areas non-attaining this winter, the agency would mandate that the state institute a State Implementation Plan to reduce pollution levels. SIP measures proposed for the Houston/Galveston area include lowering the speed limit on all roadways to 55 mph to reduce automobile emissions, which increase at increased speeds.

    The city of Austin hopes that by having at least some of the aforementioned strategies in place before the ruling, it may avoid similar, harsher strictures. "The task we have been given by the TNRCC is unique," notes a memo on ozone reduction strategies from the mayor's office. Maybe if it were spoken and not written down, you could hear a hint of irony.


    This Week in Council

    The council will hear a second reading of the proposed zoning of holdings by Interport Ltd., located on Hwy. 71 near Bergstrom airport. While the zoning calls for mixed-use development and the area will include some residential and commercial sites, the area's primary use will be industrial. According to city staff, the area will be occupied by high tech businesses which will not pollute the 100-year flood plain of the Colorado River, on which part of the site is located. The item was held for a second reading while staff deliberated on the wisdom of extending height limitations from the standard 60 feet to 75 feet.

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    KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

    ozone, Environmental Protection Agency, Dave Bary, Gregg Cooke, ozone reduction, Austin Energy, Green Choice, Progressive Insurance, Interport, Ltd.

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