Can Austin Meet New Air Rules? Don't Hold Your Breath.

Onward through the smog

Can Austin Meet New Air Rules? Don't Hold Your Breath.

Austin will need to adjust its air-quality attitude in the near future, following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent decision to tighten ozone-related smog standards for the first time in a decade. Ozone, produced when airborne pollutants from industry and autos mix together and bake in the sun, is linked to heart attacks, aggravated asthma, and breathing problems. The new standards – changed from 84 parts per billion (84 molecules of ozone for every billion of air) to 75 ppb – would likely place Austin on equal footing with Dallas/Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston, all of which stand in violation of EPA's current air-quality standards. Unreme­died violations carry the penalty of suspended federal road-funding.

A host of enviro and health groups, including the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association, rallied for a much tougher smog rule and says the new standards don't go far enough. To cut smog, the Lone Star Sierra Club says Texas must reduce energy consumption and waste through an accelerated transition to renewable energy and clean public transit. Additionally, the Sierrans say the Texas Commission on Environmental Qual­ity must consider the cumulative air-quality impact of new coal plants and require them to install the best pollution-control technology; the agency refused to do both in permitting five new coal plants since 2005.

Austin's job of reducing smog becomes much more difficult when agency regulators consistently place industry's needs first, notes Mayor Will Wynn. "While we absolutely support ozone limits that will protect public health and the environment, the reality is that until state and federal regulators get serious, we have very little chance of meeting the new standard," Wynn said in an e-mail. "They can't continue to irresponsibly hand out permits to coal-fired power plants and cynically reject better vehicle mileage standards and expect us to be able to meet strict air quality standards when 80 to 90% of our problem is blowing in from other parts of the state."

As expected, Texas industry lobbyists are fuming over the tougher rules, as are a number of state officials. Gov. Rick Perry, who joined 10 other governors in signing a letter opposing cleaner standards, called the new set of rules a "moving target" that is "particularly onerous on Texas," given the state's busy ports, massive oil and gas industry, and congested crossings along its 1,200-mile border with Mexico. And Perry's newest TCEQ appointee, Buddy Garcia, has publicly added his voice to the opposition.

Bill Gill, director of the Regional Air Quality Planning Program for the Capital Area Council of Governments, said Austin's ozone issues are part of a broad regional problem, due in part to polluted air blown in from Northeast Texas coal plants, industry in Houston, and from out of state – 40% of which already violates the old 84 ppb standard before it arrives and mixes with hometown smog. It's unclear how the EPA will handle the rule's implementation for Austin compared to substantially smoggier Houston, Gill said.

The Austin area initiated an Early Action Compact in 2002 to try and stave off violations, prompting regional vehicle emissions testing, repair, and replacement programs, in addition to community outreach programs like Ozone Action Day. With the exception of a heavy-polluting cement plant in Buda, Gill blames the area's smog not so much on large smokestacks but on thousands of little ones: Sixty percent of local emissions of nitrogen oxides, a main ozone/smog ingredient, comes from diesel engines, he said, adding that the Capital Area Council of Governments would especially like to address pollution from the army of diesel trucks and heavy machinery at work Down­town and on new area roads. New 2007 EPA emissions rules for diesel engines, enforcement of the area's heavy-diesel idling restrictions, and Texas' low-emissions diesel-fuel mandate will each slowly make a difference, he said (even though the TCEQ let Austin's main diesel supplier, Flint Hills Resources, opt out of the cleaner fuel rules by using credits). If the area's vehicle miles traveled continue to increase, as they have, local air-quality activist Scott Johnson argues its effect will outstrip the inherent benefits of cleaner engines and cleaner fuels.

As Austin approaches its ozone season, which generally starts in June, Gill said the council will be promoting programs to cut commuting-related pollution and possibly encourage telecommuting. One program, River Cities Rideshare, is an Internet-based ride-matching initiative designed to diminish individual auto commutes around Austin and San Antonio. Another program, Clean Air Partners, challenges employers to reduce their commuter pollution by 10%. Gill said the TCEQ refused to codify such emissions-reduction programs into the 2002 Early Action Compact. For more info, see www.cleanairdrive.com and www.cleanairpartnerstx.org.

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