Clean Air in Texas? Not!

The state's clean bill of health means less than meets the eye (and nose)

On June 28, Gov. Rick Perry's office wasted no time firing off a press release applauding Texas' pending approval under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new fine-particle pollution guidelines. FPPs are toxic microscopic emissions, created mainly in combustion engines and coal-burning power plants, two things of which Texas suffers no shortage. The particles' minuscule size – smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – keeps them suspended in the air, where they trigger asthma fits, heart attacks, and hundreds of preventable deaths in Texas alone.

Common sense might dictate that a press release praising air quality in the state that Houston calls home would be immediately followed by one wherein hell annexes the Barton Creek Greenbelt. But this was the EPA talking, right? Or should its findings be taken with a fine particle of salt?

According to air-quality expert Ramon Alvarez at the Texas office of Environmental Defense, the EPA has "done a good job" verifying its data. States self-reported their FPP levels to the EPA, which then had to discern if those readings were reliable. Turned out Texas' data was reliable. But at the same time, the EPA is reviewing the adequacy of its current FPP standards, and Alvarez says there's evidence that FPP levels below those standards may still be dangerous and deadly.

The EPA's present review is the nation's initial test of FPP regulations; according to the agency's own press release, "the fine particle standards were established in 1997, but litigation slowed their implementation." (Those durned trial lawyers.) What finally emerged is of dubious value, critics say, not only because the EPA's standards are too low, but because its methodology is skewed. As Alvarez comments, "The monitoring network is not ubiquitous. By using meter readings to create regional average levels of FPP concentration, the data misses specific hot spots."

Tom "Smitty" Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, echoes the concern, saying the EPA review "hides the true toxicity of Texas air" by leveling out readings for areas near interstates, railways, and ports, and by not accounting for greater risks in cities like Houston and Dallas that are already in "nonattainment" of federal ozone standards. He adds that the soon-to-explode number of tractor-trailers crossing the border from Mexico – thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling favoring the White House – will lead "particle levels [to] go up dramatically."

Despite the governor's jubilation at Texas' clean bill of health, environmental advocates aren't holding their breath, so to speak. Notes Karen Hadden of Austin's SEED Coalition, "Just because we [in Austin] don't have nonattainment status doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned."

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Air Quality, fine particle pollution, Rick Perry, Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Ramon Alvarez, Tom "Smitty" Smith

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