After federal regulators announced that the city’s air is too polluted to meet smog standards, San Antonio leaders have put their top public health official in charge of cleaning up the air.

At a City Council meeting Wednesday, City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced that Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger will lead the city’s efforts to address ozone, an urban pollutant linked to higher death rates and hospitalizations because of its damaging effects on the lungs.

Bridger, who came to San Antonio in 2017 after directing public health departments in North Carolina, has her work cut out for her. According to the EPA, San Antonio’s ozone levels averaged 74 parts per billion from 2015 to 2017, the period of record for its decision. The EPA’s standard is 70 parts per billion.

The EPA’s decision ended San Antonio’s status as the largest city in the U.S. whose air still officially met federal standards. It could slow down new road projects and add costs to businesses building or expanding in Bexar County.

Though the EPA brought focus to the issue, San Antonio’s ozone levels have been dropping from recent highs in the early 2000s. That’s likely due to vehicles and other equipment becoming more efficient.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” Bridger told City Council members at their Wednesday meeting. “With a more concerted effort, I think we can get there in the next three years.”

City of San Antonio Health Director Colleen Bridger.
City of San Antonio Health Director Colleen Bridger Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City officials plan to spend more money on air quality in their 2019 fiscal year, which begins in October.

That includes $45,000 for the second phase of a study of San Antonio’s ozone sources, and $100,000 for education and outreach on climate and air quality issues, and $150,000 to study how to add more electric vehicles to the City’s fleet.

Also on Wednesday, state regulators announced plans to allocate $73.6 million in Volkswagen funds to reduce air pollution in the San Antonio area. Under the draft plan, the city and neighboring counties will have access to a greater share than any other Texas urban area of the $209 million in total funding for Texas that came out of a settlement involving the car manufacturer, the EPA, and the State of California.

City Government and Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle said the City’s $150,000 fleet study will be required to access that VW money. He called the study a “precursor to how we might utilize that pot of state dollars.”

The plan is to sufficiently lower San Antonio’s ozone levels within three years. The clock starts on Sept. 24, when the EPA will begin to apply additional regulatory measures.

Bridger said improving San Antonio’s air will take creative approaches because of the city’s explosive growth that brings more people, vehicles, and demand for energy.

“Just doing what we’ve always done is not going to get us below [the standard],” she said.

EPA Lawsuit Considered

At the meeting Wednesday, council members Clayton Perry (D10) and Greg Brockhouse (D6) asked whether the City could challenge the EPA’s decision in court. Both think the EPA’s decision will hurt job growth.

“What’s going to convince a company to locate here in San Antonio versus right outside our Bexar County line in these other counties that are in attainment?” Perry said.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10)
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Responding to Perry and Brockhouse, City Attorney Andy Segovia said the EPA has “a lot of flexibility and discretion in terms of enforcing the Clean Air Act,” citing a recent appeals court ruling.

“It’d be very difficult to launch a legal challenge once the EPA makes its determination,” Segovia said.

Despite initial indications they were considering a lawsuit, Bexar County officials seem to have no appetite for a fight with the EPA. In a text message, T.J. Mayes, chief of staff for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, said the County “will be deferring to Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s office on legal recourse.”

With an EPA reversal seeming remote at this point, many Council members converged around the idea that the City should do what it can to improve public health.

“What we know is that children whose lungs are still developing, if they’re exposed to high levels of ozone, their lungs won’t fully develop,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7). “They just won’t grow as big as they do otherwise. That means that when that child gets old and has lung function decrease … they will decrease from a lower point, and they will die sooner.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7)
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But some questioned what City government can do influence San Antonio’s air quality and at what cost.

“I don’t frankly think the debate is today,” Brockhouse said at the meeting. “I think it’s when you’re going to trot out … those spending requirements, those asks, those financial requests. That’s when the conversation is really going to come.”

The Work To Come

Under the Clean Air Act, most of the regulatory burden that comes with San Antonio’s level of ozone pollution will fall to state environmental regulators.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s version of the EPA, must now develop an emissions inventory, more closely track large emitters, and put new or expanding large industrial businesses in Bexar County through a stricter and more expensive air permitting process.

Local transportation projects could also see delays. Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) officials have said they will likely need to add six to 18 months of additional time for new transportation projects to calculate whether they will make San Antonio’s air quality better or worse.

Art Reinhardt, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, said at the meeting that many recent bond projects will add more vehicles to the roads. Projects like these that increase traffic capacity will likely need more scrutiny from the AAMPO, he said.

Art Reinhardt, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

AAMPO Director Sid Martinez told council members that his staff is prepared for the additional work.

“We have been lucky for decades that we’ve been the largest city in the country still in attainment for air-quality standards,” Martinez said. “But unfortunately, I think at this point the standard is set and we have not met it.”

One of the City’s initial steps will be forming an ozone task force and creating an action plan by March 1, Bridger told the Council.

The City and County have previously each paid $125,000 to fund air-quality planning at the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG), an intergovernmental agency that has for years led studies and planning on local air-quality issues.

Other local air quality efforts include City and County bans on heavy truck idling and a City ban on coal-tar sealant products, also done to reduce water pollution in runoff from pavement.

Conflicting Studies

Bridger’s department has contracted with Harvey Jeffries, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has worked on air-quality issues in Houston, to study the origin of San Antonio’s ozone.

At the meeting, Bridger shared some of Jeffries’ preliminary findings for San Antonio, with one in particular raising eyebrows: Days with high ozone tend to have slow morning winds, she said.

That raised the attention of Perry and Brockhouse, who questioned why Jeffries’ findings were different than those of AACOG. AACOG’s staff have for years said that photochemical modeling shows that most of San Antonio’s ozone-forming pollution blows in on the wind from other cities, states, and countries.

“Frankly, I’d like to know why there is the difference,” Brockhouse said. “It’s warranted, especially if [AACOG] is taking the lead on a regional issue like this.”

“The information that AACOG had was based on models,” Bridger responded. “It was the best we had at the time. We now have better information, and by the end of September we’ll have even better information. … That actual data is giving us a better understanding than the models could.”

Asked about this, AACOG Director Diane Rath said in an email that her agency’s modeling is “recognized and accepted by the EPA and TCEQ.”

“It is based on actual data,” Rath said. “In fact, much of [Jeffries’] work is based on data provided by AACOG. We look forward to all additional information that will assist this region in meeting the ozone standard as quickly as possible.”

Meeting those standards likely can’t be done without support from San Antonio’s businesses. Besides CPS Energy’s power plants, many of the city’s largest single sources of air pollution are privately operated cement kilns and plants owned by Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, Calumet San Antonio Refining, and other industrial operators.

“We have a little bit of influence over utilities,” said Councilman John Courage (D9). “But the others, besides the automobiles that we all drive, is what comes out of the business community. … Hopefully, the business community takes a serious role in developing what they think is a good way of trying to manage this.”

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