San Antonio will be the last metro area in the country to find out whether it meets federal smog standards after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked for more time to lobby against additional air quality regulations.

A coalition of environment and public health groups, and states with Democrat-controlled statehouses sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the agency missed its October 2017 deadline to say whether counties across the U.S. have air clean enough to meet a new ozone standard set in 2015.

Local environmentalists and public health advocates say San Antonio needs to improve its air quality to improve public health, citing data showing San Antonio has relatively high child asthma rates.

In two recent legal filings, EPA officials said every other part of the country will know their final status by April 30. But the EPA could take until August 10 to make a decision on San Antonio, EPA Assistant Administrator William Wehrum said.

“Additional time is needed to finalize designations for the eight counties in the San Antonio area because the state has indicated it has additional information to submit,” Wehrum said in a declaration in federal court in California’s Northern District.

The delay drew instant outcry from San Antonio environmentalists and public health advocates.

“There is no justification for the EPA to delay on this issue,” said Mario Bravo, Texas outreach specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund, in an email.

“If the State of Texas has new information on why we should delay the implementation of this standard then they should make it public,” he continued. “Otherwise, these delays to clean up our air continue to put the lives of our most vulnerable populations at risk.”

In an emailed statement, Abbott’s deputy press secretary, Mac Walker, did not specify what information the governor will submit to the EPA.

“We intend to submit information sufficient to prove that San Antonio should not be designated as [being in] nonattainment,” Walker said. “If the EPA finds this information as insufficient for an attainment designation, this will only serve to underscore just how flawed and draconian the new ozone rule is.”

Diane Rath, director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments, welcomed the news and said the San Antonio area has steadily improved its air quality over the decades even as the city grows.

“I think this region has demonstrated its commitment to being in compliance and the record certainly supports that,” she said.

Ozone, a key component of smog, mainly comes from power plant exhaust stacks, road vehicles, construction equipment, small engines, and outdoor chemical use.

In the upper atmosphere, ozone helps protect the Earth from harmful solar radiation. But down at ground level, it irritates and inflames the lungs, worsening chronic lung conditions like asthma.

In 2015 in response to concerns from public health experts, the Obama Administration’s EPA lowered the standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. San Antonio’s three-year average high ozone level stands at 74 parts per billion.

Abbott and former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who now runs the EPA, have both called the new ozone standard unlawful. The rule was one of many Obama-era environmental regulations both states sued over.

Not meeting the standards will trigger more scrutiny from regulators. In San Antonio, that means a stricter review for companies that would build new plants or factories in the area, and it could slow planning for highway projects.

A recent study funded by the Alamo Area Council of Governments found stricter ozone regulations would have a total economic impact on Bexar County and its surrounding counties of $3.2 billion to $36.2 billion. The council is a coalition of local government entities whose staff issues regular reports on ozone issues.

Abbott cited that study in a September letter asking the EPA to “to allow the state more time to show that additional data and considerations – such as international transport,” the economic impact of new regulations and the effect on military bases.

Pollution studies by AACOG have shown that approximately two-thirds of pollution that forms ozone blows in from outside the San Antonio area on high-ozone days, coming from other cities and countries, including Mexico. The remaining third comes from within the metro area.

But San Antonio’s pollution also wafts into other Texas cities, worsening their air quality, said David T. Allen, the Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“While many Texas cities see a large fraction of their ozone transported into their metropolitan area, most Texas cities also contribute to air pollution in other Texas cities,” he said in an email.

Abbott’s letter to the EPA was an about-face for the governor, who one year earlier told the federal agency that San Antonio’s high ozone levels means that Bexar County does not meet the standard.

Neither of Abbott’s letters mentioned people’s health, though multiple studies have attempted to quantify the effect of air pollution on local residents.

A recent study funded by the city found that lowering ozone levels below 70 parts per billion could lead to 24 fewer respiratory related deaths per year. A 2016 report by New York University and the American Thoracic Society found ozone to blame for 52 preventable deaths per year in San Antonio and thousands of hospitalizations.

State data show that San Antonio children are hospitalized for asthma attacks at a higher rate than the rest of the state – 14.7 hospitalizations per 10,000 in 2015, compared to 8.3 per 10,000 for Texas as a whole.

That’s likely due to a combination of outdoor air quality, the air quality in people’s homes, and a lack of education about the means for managing asthma medications, though it’s difficult to know for sure, Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger said.

Those detrimental health issues in part prompted San Antonio and Bexar County to take steps on their own to improve the air. Both entities and the city of Leon Valley banned heavy truck idling in 2016.

San Antonio has also launched a “Breathe Today, SA Tomorrow” campaign encouraging people to walk, bike, ride the bus, or carpool, avoid running lawnmowers and leaf blowers during the heat of the day, and other steps to reduce air pollution.

In a recent council meeting, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told Abbott’s staff that while they don’t want more federal regulations, they want to take steps to improve resident’s health.

“We’re going to do everything proactive we can,” Nirenberg said. “We don’t need a regulatory reason to improve our air quality.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.