The Smog Cometh
Alternative transportation programs help keep Austin in line
Ozone season is approaching, bringing with it those confoundingly hot days when the ills of our fossil-fueled society manifest as ill people – particularly children, the elderly, and outdoor exercisers. The culprit? Ground-level ozone (aka smog) formed when industrial air pollution mixes with exhaust fumes from cars and then bakes in the sun. Breathing the stuff is like getting a sunburn to the lungs, according to Dr. Bennie McWilliams of Dell Children's Medical Center, and exposure can seriously exacerbate a range of lung conditions. McWilliams spoke at a recent press conference kicking off local pollution reduction efforts – an especially urgent endeavor right now, given that Austin may soon stand in violation of federal ozone standards, following the Environmental Protection Agency's decision last month to tighten its rules to better protect public health.
Mayor Will Wynn said that we're doing a good job curtailing electricity-related emissions, thanks to Austin Energy's conservation and clean-energy programs – but "transportation emissions," he said, "are fouling Central Texas' air." Hoping to tap the "awareness that Central Texas' air is not what it should be," Wynn touted the immense near-term air-quality potential of regional initiatives like Clean Air Partners and River Cities Rideshare. If 10% of the 160,000 workers employed locally by the Clean Air Partners' 105 participating businesses found an alternative to driving alone, he said, we'd take 16,000 single-occupant vehicles off the road each day and avoid 250,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide emissions.
Participants in the Clean Air Partners program pledge to reduce their ozone-causing emissions by 10% within three years and report their progress online. Employers that have signed on can participate through on-site greening tactics as well as alt-commute strategies like car- and van-pooling, public transit, bicycling, telecommuting, and flextime work schedules (designed to avoid auto congestion peaks). Meanwhile, River Cities Rideshare offers free ride-matching and public transit info for Austin- and San Antonio-area commuters, who can use an online calculator to see precisely how curbing their drives saves cash, burns calories, and reduces pollution. Locally run website Commute Solutions Coalition offers similar resources.
But to focus on auto avoidance alone, said Sen. Kirk Watson, would be ignoring the proverbial "800-pound gorilla in the room: coal plants." He cited the propensity of the governor's office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to rubber-stamp fast-tracked permits with weak standards. Specifically, Watson said the Oak Grove plant, under construction about 100 miles northeast of Austin, was permitted in such a way that its emissions could single-handedly put Austin out of compliance with EPA standards. "The TCEQ is going to have to be better," said Watson, noting 2007 legislation by Waco Dem Chet Edwards requiring federal Government Accountability Office oversight of the cumulative statewide impacts of Texas coal plants. The TCEQ refused to consider such impacts beyond 30 miles in its permitting policy, which Watson equates to "burying their head in the sand." As for further reforms, he said, "I'm not afraid for a minute to look at legislative changes to make sure the TCEQ does its job."