A young girl uses her inhaler. Photo courtesy of Moms Clean Air Force of Central TX.

On a Monday morning last November, the front row parking at Noah’s Event Venue was blocked off for public officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Officials drove in from Austin for the Bexar County Air Quality Open House, “a free, educational event (designed) to bring together the public, political leaders, neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses, and students to learn about and discuss solutions to air quality issues in the Bexar County area.”

That day, dozens of state employees hosted display tables showcasing tools used by the commission: infrared emission detection cameras and brochures stating that visible industrial flares are “really ok.” Even a mobile air monitoring station stood in the far parking lot.

In an impressive turnout, all the environmental quality commissioners were in attendance. To quote a government employee present, “I’d be lucky to get one of my commissioners to turn out for a workshop.”

The commissioners’ speeches focused heavily on Eagle Ford Shale emissions, specifically on how these have almost nothing to do with local air pollution. This singular focus seemed oddly defensive at an event about Bexar County air quality. In fact, of the seven people who took the stage that day, only one, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), acknowledged ozone pollution was a problem. Only he proposed any ideas for reducing it.

In stark contrast, Commission Toxicology Director Michael Honeycutt, attacked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new, more health protective ozone standard, which was lowered to 70 parts per billion last October. Ozone, a colorless, odorless, but highly reactive gas, exacerbates respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis in the short term; and in the long term contributes to premature death from decreased lung function. Honeycutt also tried to assure the audience that the health effects of ozone were completely reversible.

Staff from the Alamo Area Council of Governments were present at the event but noticeably absent from being included in the speakers’ slate. The agency is responsible for tabulating local sources of air pollution and modeling regional ozone levels, including recent scientific modeling showing that, on days when the San Antonio region is in violation of air quality standards for ozone, more than two-thirds of the emissions contributing to those ozone levels comes from outside of our region, including emissions from oil and gas activities in the Eagle Ford Shale.

Presentations concluded not with Q&A, as one might expect at an “Open House” event, but an invitation to view displays made by the commission and other local government entities. After that, the event came to an uncomfortable, languishing close.

In conversation afterward, commission emcee Brian Christian listed the many scheduling difficulties for evening meetings: football, church, etc. that would explain the Monday 8 a.m. time slot. His response to why this location had been selected: “Because it was the most convenient for us.” But not perhaps, for Bexar County’s “public, political leaders, neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses, and students.”

If the purpose of the event was to ensure the oil and gas industry that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would protect them from-ozone related regulations, then I congratulate event organizers on a job well done. The commissioners’ strong words, the participation of dozens of TCEQ staff and the absence of competing voices sent a clear message. However, if the purpose of the event was to bring together varied stakeholders, distinct viewpoints and collectively, “discuss solutions to air quality issues in the Bexar County area,” then the commission has a long way to go.

In all likelihood, the Alamo Area will be in violation of the ozone standard for the period 2014-2016, and the commission will be responsible for helping to develop strategies to minimize ozone pollution in the region. If last fall’s workshop is any indication, locals may find themselves as merely witnesses, not participants in the process. The time for meaningful engagement with the state is now.

*Top Image: A young girl uses her inhaler. Photo courtesy of Moms Clean Air Force of Central TX.

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Krystal Henagan

Krystal Henagan is the Texas Field Organizer for Moms Clean Air Force and mother to an asthmatic son.