City Council approved two proposals intended to reduce pollutant exposure within city limits Thursday: an anti-idling ordinance and a ban on coal tar sealants.

Data collected over the last three years showed that San Antonio is out of attainment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s more stringent air quality standards. San Antonio previously held the distinction of the largest city in the country to meet those standards. The anti-idling ordinance requires parked vehicles that weigh more than 14,000 pounds to turn off their engines after five minutes in an attempt to reduce harmful ozone emissions idling produces. There are several exceptions that include traffic congestion, passenger comfort and safety in commercial vehicles like tour buses, and emergency vehicles. A full description of the ordinance can be downloaded here.

Businesses and organizations, like school districts, already had authority to limit idling around their property. Today, truck drivers throughout the city can’t be penalized for idling while parked, something the anti-idling ordinance will remedy.

The ordinance, effective January 1, 2017, was unanimously approved by Council members, who saw it as a small step in the right direction.

“This is an extremely important issue for San Antonio,” said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who proposed the measure. “This policy is not a silver bullet, in fact it barely scratches the surface, but it’s a first step.”

There are still some unresolved questions regarding the ordinance’s enforcement. Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said he supported the measure, “but how do we determine someone has been idling for long enough to enforce the ordinance on them?”

San Antonio police officers either need to directly observe idling for more than five minutes or receive a complaint from a third party requesting them to intervene, said Police Chief William McManus. This empowers San Antonians to take responsibility for enforcement to reduce pollutants on their own behalf, but it is unlikely that the ordinance will eliminate all excessive idling throughout the city.

Council unanimously passed the anti-idling ordinance, but future air quality policies aren’t likely to be as broadly supported. Anti-idling doesn’t threaten any local business interests or require substantial sacrifice by any members of the community. Policies discussed as options for next steps, including a potential ban on heavy vehicles through downtown or less carbon-intensive electricity generation, are bound to be more controversial.

The coal tar sealant ban brought plenty of vested opposition from business owners since it directly challenges certain business interests. Some scientific research shows that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) released by coal tar sealants, commonly used for parking lots, are carcinogenic.  Austin, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C., and many other cities have a ban on the sealant, which makes it illegal to apply tar coal sealants to buildings, streets, or parking lots because of that carcinogenic risk.

When it goes into effect on January 1, San Antonio will be the largest city to ban coal tar-based sealants in the country.

None of the local developers or manufacturers who spoke to City Council on Thursday said they would go out of business as a result of the ban, but several said that their businesses would be negatively affected since alternative sealants can be more expensive.

Some also voiced extreme skepticism of the carcinogenic effect of the coal tar sealants.

“If PAHs are so bad, we should all be dead by now,” said Jim Craven, owner of Parking Lot Store, which sells parking lot maintenance equipment. “The CDC found that people who make the sealer, apply the sealer, and buy the sealer don’t have elevated risks of cancer.”

Doug Melnick, the City’s chief sustainability officer, said his staff analyzed 80 peer-reviewed studies on the connection between coal tar sealants and cancer-risks, and said that all independent analyses concluded that there is a substantial carcinogenic risk from proximity to coal tar sealants. Those studies include research from Baylor University, University of Oregon, the United States Geological Survey, and the University of Texas at Austin. The only studies that didn’t reach the same conclusion, Melnick said, were industry studies commissioned and implemented by groups with an admitted financial incentive to keep coal tar sealants on the market.

Tom Ennis, an engineer from Austin who founded Coal Tar Free America, argued that while PAHs are produced anytime fossil fuels are burned, banning coal tar sealants is the most cost-effective and reasonable way to control urban PAHs, thus reducing cancer risks. Ennis quoted a medical doctor who called coal tar sealant “a big bucket of carcinogens.”

Tom Ennis, founder of Coal Tar Free America, told City Council about the health effects of coal tar sealants.  Photo by Mitch Hagney.
Tom Ennis, founder of Coal Tar Free America, told City Council about the health effects of coal tar sealants. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

In addition to the carcinogenic risks, there are concerns about the effect PAHs have on wildlife. San Antonio resident Rebecca Reeves said that PAHs are “a toxic to aquatic life,” when they are applied to streams and tributaries, affecting the animals within. Representatives from the San Antonio River Authority confirmed that PAH runoff is harmful to wildlife and Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance Executive Director Annalisa Peace advocated for the ordinance.

Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) called the coal tar sealant ban “a terrible mistake.

“We’re not even looking at the impact on small businesses. If you use inferior products (without coal tar sealants), they fall apart right away,” he said. “We’re going to make decisions that hurt (small businesses) in a blatant way.”

There are many alternatives for coal tar sealants, but critics argue that they are exorbitantly expensive while supporters say they cost nearly the same as coal tar sealants.

Most cities along the West Coast use the alternative sealants when building and rarely use coal tar sealants because the distance from where it’s produced – at steel-manufacturing plants mostly in the Midwest and along the East Coast – makes it costlier.

Gallagher also voiced skepticism of the science connecting coal tar sealants with an increased cancer risk. San Antonio Water System (SAWS), he said, hasn’t found an increase in PAHs when doing their water testing. However, that doesn’t mean PAHs aren’t accumulating in the air, through direct contact, or in the water that SAWS isn’t actively filtering.

Gallagher and Krier were the only ones who opposed the ban, which was initially proposed by Nirenberg in 2014.

“(Approving the coal tar ban) is a major win for public health,” Nirenberg stated in a news release Thursday afternoon. “This is a long-overdue measure that is based in common sense and backed by science.”

Top image: Cars pass by and many idle in Southtown. New ordinances will regulate both cars idling and pavement sealant.  Photo by Mitch Hagney.

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Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.