Naked City

TCEQ chokes on Austin air plan

Local officials have cleared the air with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, drawing more concessions from the state for the implementation of the proposed Austin-San Marcos Clean Air Action Plan, crafted by regional leaders under the terms of the metro area's Early Action Compact with federal regulators.

Those leaders were left with a lot of mixed messages after an April meeting with TCEQ commissioners, shortly after submitting the final CAAP, the product of many months of work. As Austin nears nonattainment of federal clean-air standards for ground-level ozone, local leaders expected to be working with, rather than against, state officials on the area's list of proposed measures to reduce emissions and forestall nonattainment status – and the full weight of sanctions in the federal Clean Air Act.

But the proposed plan may have reached a bit too far. When the meeting in April was over, state officials raised a number of questions about the plan, even on items that were considered a "given" – like a local vehicle inspection and maintenance program (that is, tailpipe testing of auto emissions), which the state has already included as part of the Houston, Dallas, and El Paso plans. Those who worked closely on the plan were frustrated by what appeared to be the dismantling of a year of consensus building.

Travis Co. environmental planner Scheleen Walker, who represented the county during work on the CAAP, said the goal was always to be as equitable as possible. "The plan was crafted, first and foremost, under a policy of fair share," Walker said. "The goal was that everybody would do their fair share, and that every industry in the region also would do their fair share for clean air."

But TCEQ commissioners were less than pleased with some of the CAAP proposals, and downright uncomfortable with a recommendation for a mandatory ride-share program for state agencies, the region's largest employer and generator of commuter trips. City of Austin sustainability officer Fred Blood agrees that TCEQ opposed what he called "common sense measures" for major employers, such as putting off parking lot repairs and buying into "green power." Blood said travel options were not restricted to ride-share programs, but also included flex-time alternatives and providing employees bus passes. Houston tried to implement widespread ride-share programs in the early Nineties and eventually abandoned the effort.

Agency staff now say the commissioners will agree to the vehicle inspection and maintenance program (the largest single component of the CAAP), degreasing and vapor recovery protocols, and cutting back the pouring of asphalt. But the region appears to have lost its argument to restrict or control new power plant emissions near the region. Air quality models indicate that just one new plant the size of Alcoa's coal-fired facility in Milam Co., just outside the Austin-San Marcos region, could produce enough emissions to erase all of the work accomplished by the CAAP.

"We are disappointed that they did not accept some of our other innovative approaches, which we thought were the foundation of the EAC," Blood said. "This is a new program for new standards, and we felt that a new approach was necessary." TCEQ commissioners are expected to sign off on the revised plan in July.

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