GHASPing for Breath in Houston

Depending on where you're standing, last week the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission gave its initial approval to agency staff recommendations to tighten -- or rather to loosen -- air pollution restrictions on major industries in the Houston-Galveston air-pollution non-attainment zones. According to a statement from the agency, revisions approved July 5 to the Houston-Galveston State Implementation Plan include "several new rules designed to control the release from industrial facilities of certain highly reactive compounds known to accelerate the formation of ground-level ozone. ... Greater reductions of these emissions -- part of a class of compounds known as Volatile Organic Compounds -- may allow the TNRCC to adjust the current strategy to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by as much as 90%."

As reported by "Capitol Chronicle" on June 7, an industry lawsuit against the TNRCC by a group of energy and oil companies calling themselves the Business Coalition for Clean Air-Appeals Group resulted in a Houston air quality study that confirmed many thousands of tons of unreported toxic olefin (a highly volatile form of VOCs) emissions from Houston petrochemical factories. The industry group wants to reduce these emissions in exchange for a lower reduction requirement for NOx -- and the TNRCC has now given its tentative approval to that trade-off.

Commissioner Ralph Marquez described the proposed new rules as based on "sound science" and as "more productive" for clean air. But John Wilson, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, called the revisions a "complete capitulation" to industry and the result of "politics and corporate influence as usual." Allowing industry to reduce emissions that have gone underreported for years, he asserted, effectively gives them "special credit for irresponsibility in one area [VOCs], while the agency is abdicating responsibility by allowing a rollback on the NOx side." Wilson said GHASP intends to keep working against the changes, because "we need cleaner air in Houston." Even under the current regulations, he charged, the agency and industry have a "track record of broken promises and backsliding on their commitments."

TNRCC commissioners also voted to postpone implementing a 55-mph speed limit in the Houston area, pending further study, and adopted other S.I.P. changes said to address the current 56-ton shortfall in pollution reductions required by the EPA. A public hearing on the proposals will take place 2pm Thursday, July 18, at TNRCC headquarters, following by hearings July 22 in Houston and Channelview.

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