Traffic lines up on Interstate 35.
Traffic lines up on Interstate 35. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is one step closer to formally deciding whether San Antonio’s air meets a federal health standard, a decision that would affect public health, regional transportation planning, and CPS Energy’s coal plants.

In a March 19 letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, EPA officials say the agency intends to “modify” the governor’s recommendation that Bexar County’s air still be considered clean enough to meet the standard. The letter states that the EPA would consider “all or portions of Bexar County as, at best, unclassifiable.”

The EPA intends to designate the seven mostly rural counties that surround Bexar County as meeting the standard, the letter states.

In response to public health concerns, the Obama-era EPA in 2015 lowered a federal health standard for ozone, a key component of smog, from 75 parts per billion to 70. San Antonio’s average levels from 2014 to 2016, the period of record for the EPA’s decision, was 73 parts per billion.

San Antonio is the only major city in the U.S. whose air is still officially considered clean enough to meet the standard and will be the last city in the country to learn its status.

The EPA’s most recent announcement came only days after a federal district judge in California ordered the agency to make a final decision on San Antonio’s ozone by July 17.

The EPA’s recent language was confusing even for longtime local air quality observers, but it appears to leave the door open for the agency to say San Antonio does not meet the federal health standard for ozone.

“I think they honestly just don’t know what to do,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who chairs the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“They way I’m looking at it is, we’re doing what we need to be doing as a community to stay in attainment,” Wolff said. An EPA decision that San Antonio doesn’t meet the standard would trigger increased regulations “that would be bad for us on a number of fronts,” Wolff said.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg had a similar reaction.

“We will continue our efforts to improve air quality for the sake of public health and our economy because it is the right thing to do,” Nirenberg said in a text message. “Hampering our ability to do that … with arbitrary federal penalties is counterproductive to these goals.”

Ozone – three oxygen atoms bound together – irritates and damages the lungs and is linked to chronic lung conditions like asthma. It forms when nitrogen oxides from power plants, cement kilns, small engines, and vehicle exhausts react with volatile organic compounds from outdoor chemical use and certain industrial sites in the presence of sunlight.

Interviews with local experts indicate that declaring Bexar County out of compliance with the standard would affect planning for road and other transportation projects and CPS Energy’s decisions about whether to invest more money in one of its coal plants.

“We would at some point have to put SCRs on Spruce 1,” CPS Energy Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster said, referring to a type of pollution control the utility is considering installing at one of its coal units.

CPS Energy officials have been weighing whether to make the estimated $130 million investment for a fossil fuel plant on which CPS Energy is becoming less reliant. But Eugster said the utility may wait until the 2020s to make such a decision and could reduce the need for it by running its coal plants less often.

“We’re trying to figure out how to address the central issue of air quality,” Eugster said.

Despite exceeding the current ozone standard, San Antonio’s air quality has improved over the years. Three-year average levels at one air quality monitor in northern Bexar County had a high of 87 parts per billion in 2006 before dropping to 73 parts per billion in 2016, according to the EPA.

Some local environmentalists and public health advocates say an official designation by the EPA that San Antonio’s air isn’t clean enough is the first step toward making it cleaner.

“If lowering ozone levels in Bexar County is the goal, the State of Texas, local leadership…and the EPA need to sit down and decide how to go about it,” said Peter Bella, an environmental and public health activist and former natural resources director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

“But ozone non-attainment has apparently been taken as a bullet to be avoided at all political costs, by Gov. Abbott, by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and, unfortunately, by much of the local leadership,” Bella continued in an email.

San Antonio has higher rates of child asthma than the state of Texas as a whole, though local public health experts say that’s tied to allergens, air pollution, and chronic poverty.

Studies by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, New York University, and the American Thoracic Society indicate that dozens of premature deaths related to air pollution and thousands of missed days of work and school could be avoided if San Antonio’s air was cleaner.

Abbott’s office has lobbied for the EPA to not impose additional air quality regulations on San Antonio, citing studies from the Alamo Area Council of Governments that predict the city’s air will be clean enough to meet the standard by 2023.

That’s because of increasingly cleaner cars and trucks and CPS Energy’s decision to close its Deely coal plant later this year, shutting down a major source of air pollution in the county.

A Feb. 28 letter from Abbott’s office also asserted, again using Alamo Area Council of Goverments studies, that “if not for foreign emissions, Bexar County would have already met” the ozone standard.

In a technical document released March 19, the EPA rejected that argument.

“EPA’s evaluation of Texas’s source apportionment modeling does not find that the impact of manmade emissions from Mexico are such to impact EPA’s decision making regarding the designation of the area,” its letter states.

In that report, EPA officials used air quality models to make the case that most of the ozone-forming emissions in the eight-county San Antonio metro area – 58 percent – originate in Bexar County.

If Bexar County were to be designated as not meeting the standard, it would be considered “marginal,” which brings the least amount of new regulations, the document states.

One local issue it would affect is planning for new road and other transportation projects.

Linda Alvarado-Vela, who manages planning and communications for the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said such a decision from the EPA would add six to 18 months of additional work to the organization’s planning cycle for new road and other transportation projects.

Under stricter regulations, planners would have to show that adding more highway lanes or building new roads would make San Antonio’s air quality “no worse than it is today and hopefully a little better,” she said.

Though it would cause delays, a marginal designation would probably not mean new road projects would be halted entirely, she said.

The decision could also trigger more pollution control requirements for companies that would build or expand new plants in Bexar County.

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