Naked City

The Haze Craze

Mayor Kirk Watson hopes to lead a regional effort to clean Central Texas' air.
Mayor Kirk Watson hopes to lead a regional effort to clean Central Texas' air. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

It sounds like a new dance craze, but the O3-Flex has way too many steps. And it takes a lot of dancers -- six cities, five counties, a bunch of private-sector players, the state, the feds -- to do the Flex. By the time we all breathe easier, a lot of people are going to be out of breath.

It goes like this. You may have heard of the Clean Air Act. You may have heard the term "nonattainment" -- that is, the failure to meet national air quality standards for one of six pollutants, the most common of which is ozone (O3). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has two ozone standards, the one-hour standard and the eight-hour standard. The latter of these is the stricter, but the EPA has been tied up in court since 1997 trying to implement the eight-hour standard and corrective action for metro areas that fail to meet it. Even though the agency won a significant and stunning victory at the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, we're still probably a year or more away from the eight-hour standard being more than an abstract concept.

Anyway, there are a bunch of metros that still attain the one-hour standard, but don't attain the still-in-limbo eight-hour standard. Austin is one of them, which is why you've been hearing for years that we're about to be declared a nonattainment area. The Clean Air Act lays out specific and unhappy consequences for such places -- like losing federal highway funds -- depending on how dirty the air is. But for borderline areas like Austin, the EPA has in recent years come up with a "flexible attainment" designation if the locals promise to clean up their act. And that's the O3-Flex.

Among Texas cities, Austin is the last of the four metros eligible for flexible attainment -- after Tyler-Longview-Marshall, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio -- to get its act together and do the Flex. (Houston-Galveston, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, and Beaumont-Port Arthur are already in nonattainment for O3 and under Clean Air Act prescriptions.) Anyone who's been around here for a while knows why: To do the Flex requires regional cooperation and collaboration, and when's the last time you heard that tune?

The O3-Flex agreement presented to the EPA and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission involves all five counties in the Austin metro area -- Travis, Hays, Williamson, Bastrop, and Caldwell -- as well as the cities of Austin, Round Rock, San Marcos, Elgin, Luling, and Lockhart. A "technical advisory committee" with dozens of members representing government, academia, industry, environmentalists, and appointed by the elected leaders of the participating jurisdictions, will look at specific proposals for reducing Central Texas ozone levels and -- this being Austin -- make sure citizen input is received in a public process.

There are scores of things we could do to reduce ozone levels -- reducing highway speed limits, promoting telecommuting and compressed work weeks, changing land-use practices to reduce driving times and distances, banning nasty equipment like gas-powered leaf blowers, or switching to reformulated gasoline, just to name a few. As well, the Clean Air Act requires regional transportation plans -- in our area overseen by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) -- to be reviewed for "conformity" with pollution-reduction plans, overseen by the TNRCC, once an area goes into non-attainment. Even though we're not there yet, CAMPO is already reviewing its plan, and working with state authorities to analyze roadwork out in the fringes of the CAMPO study area.

The problem is, any or all clean-air efforts can be dividers-not-uniters between regional players, and since Austin already has more than its share of regional uncooperativeness, watching the locals do the Ozone Flex should be a hoot. We won't be alone, though. The TNRCC -- which has the statutory responsibility for ensuring that Texas cities comply with the Clean Air Act -- is already catching it all over the state.

Houston's suburbs are suing because they don't want to implement the same measures required for Harris County. East Texans are up in arms that they'll have to cramp their styles to clean up the air not only in Tyler and Longview but also in Dallas, because, you see, the wind blows. And so forth. (Indeed, it's to help clean up El Paso air that we supposedly need the Longhorn Pipeline to carry reformulated gasoline through Austin back yards and across the aquifer.) While flexible attainment is supposed to resolve some of these conflicts -- we could, for example, require tailpipe testing in Austin but not in Bastrop -- you can't get around things like new roads, urban sprawl, or location deals with major employers if you're going to deal with air quality. And those tend to be topics on which not everyone in a metro area can have his or her way.

So, given that there's been no real precedent for the five counties and numerous cities of Central Texas to work as a unit for any purpose, and given that air quality almost invariably pits neighbor against neighbor, is the Ozone Flex doomed to fail in Central Texas? Or is this agreement the start of something big? Rooting for Option B is Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, an outspoken regionalist and the longtime pointman for Central Texas clean-air efforts. (Watson formerly chaired the Texas Air Control Board, now folded into TNRCC.) "The mayor feels," says Watson aide Kristin Vassallo, "that this can be a template for other regional issues. It began with elected officials sitting down to take a comprehensive look" at the issue. "There are numerous issues that cross jurisdictional lines that can only be addressed regionally."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Environmental Protection Agency, non-attainment, ozone, flexible attainment, Clean Air Act, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Kirk Watson, Kristin Vassallo

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