Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other speakers at a summit on Friday said members of San Antonio’s business community can help improve local air quality without hurting their bottom line.

The City is waiting to see whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will designate the San Antonio area in non-attainment of a pending federal ozone standard. A more stringent non-attainment tag could prompt a slate of costly measures for the public and private sector, possibly resulting in billions of dollars of economic output lost over a number of years.

Alamo Area Council of Governments Executive Director Diane Rath speaks at the Air Quality Summit.
Alamo Area Council of Governments Executive Director Diane Rath speaks at the Air Quality Summit. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

But Nirenberg and other speakers at the San Antonio Air Quality Summit said the City, local mass transit and utility agencies, and businesses should build upon existing initiatives to help reduce emissions of ozone-forming pollutants. Nirenberg said cleaner air and reducing people’s carbon footprint is not just a public health or environmental issue, but an opportunity for businesses to discover and develop eco-friendly best practices.

“This event, from where we can harmoniously cultivate a healthy community and a vigorous economy, is a testament to the work we’ve done to bridge the divide between business leaders and environmental advocates,” Nirenberg told an audience of about 200 people.

Right now San Antonio is the largest U.S city in attainment of the existing federal ozone standard. But Nirenberg said the private and public sector should continue working together to help keep San Antonio in attainment, and maintain the downward trend of ozone readings that the area has recorded in the last few years.

“Even in the midst of ambiguity, our course of action is very clear – we must attain clear air status,” the Mayor said. “The medical science is unanimous – that poor air quality is a significant threat to human health….”

“The medical professionals in the room must be uncompromising about children’s health. Remind us also, where we have already met the federal [ozone] standard is not where we need to be. We need to be better than that.”

Rohit Sharma, environmental issues manager for the chemical and refining company LyondellBasell, explained how several large business and industrial ozone emitters from the Houston-Galveston area partnered with local governmental agencies to help their area meet previous ozone emissions standards and still maintained financial growth.

The Houston-Galveston area’s private and public sector have spent $3 billion to $5 billion over two decades, employing a range of initiatives contributing toward overall better air quality. But a key factor, Sharma said, was for business and industry to reduce their emissions and proceed from there.

“When in you’re in non-attainment, you are in what we call a capped environment. You can’t increase emissions,” Sharma said. “In a capped environment, how do you grow? How have we grown in 25 years in Houston in a capped environment? You reduce emissions in order to grow.”

AACOG Executive Director Diane Rath commended businesses as well as public transit agencies and utilities on the ways they have helped to improve San Antonio’s air quality, such as CPS Energy’s plan to retire the J.T. Deely coal-fired power plant in 2018.

“The contributions that CPS Energy is making in closing the Deely plant early has a huge impact on our air,” she added. “Every penny [industries and utilities] invest in technology helps our air and helps our area.”

Other speakers laid out the ways that the public sector invites the private sector to help San Antonio achieve better air quality.

Rick Luna, senior product development manager for CPS Energy, said an increasing number of residential and commercial customers are embracing different energy-efficiency programs offered by the utility. There are more than 10,000 solar power users and 17,500 weatherized homes.

“Reduced energy use has a direct correlation to improved air quality,” Luna said.

Leroy Alloway, government and community relations director for VIA Metropolitan Transit, promoted VIAWorks, a program that offers reduced bus fares to employees of participating businesses. Alloway said that any method in which commuters take mass transportation helps to cut down on air pollution.

“When we put people onto transit, we are taking vehicles off the road, we are able to have a positive environmental impact,” he added.

Alloway noted that significant road projects do not always ease traffic congestion.

“The concept of bigger is always better may not necessarily apply when it comes to transportation,” Alloway said. “We need to look at ways to move things smarter instead of adding more lanes, and putting more asphalt and concrete on the ground.”

VIA Metropolitan Transit Director of Government and Community Relations Leroy Alloway speaks at the Air Quality Summit.
VIA Metropolitan Transit Director of Government and Community Relations Leroy Alloway speaks at the Air Quality Summit. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

To help achieve its air-quality goals, the City is promoting a Breathe Today SA Tomorrow campaign, asking businesses to promise to improve air quality in their own ways. Those methods could range from ensuring that the tires of fleet vehicles have proper air pressure to offering employee shuttles at lunchtime. By the end of Friday’s summit, representatives from nine businesses signed pledges to help.

The air quality summit was presented by the City’s Office of Sustainability and the San Antonio Business Journal.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.