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City leaders say a collaborative effort is needed to help the San Antonio area stave off a costly non-compliance designation for new ozone air pollution standards.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its new 70 parts per billion (ppb) national standard to limit smog-forming pollution on Thursday. The new standard is a drop from the current standard of 75 ppb but at the high end of a range that the EPA laid out last fall.
San Antonio, officially, has been the only large U.S. city with a clean record of regarding the federal Clean Air Act. Unofficially, San Antonio has been out of compliance with the previous standard of 75 ppb for three years.
If the EPA finds an average ozone reading higher than the new standard, the federal government could tag the City with a non-attainment designation, which could result in air quality regulations that would require expensive limitations and retrofits on San Antonio’s biggest emitters of ground-level ozone. For example, pollution-control equipment likely would be required on cars, chemical plants, manufacturing facilities, and more. San Antonio faced a similar challenge in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Three City Council members, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and other concerned citizens, gathered at City Hall to push for a meeting of minds to help reduce pollutants that affect public health. Local officials acknowledge that solutions will not come overnight, but can help lessen the impact on the local economy.
“The time for action is now,” said Peter Bella, speaking for the environmental advocacy group Texas for Responsible Energy Development. For years, Bella was the point man working on regional air quality issues for the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG).
“We need to act to reduce public health risks associated with ozone,” Bella added.
City Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) said he considers the EPA announcement good news because it is part of the “pursuit of cleaner air for our children and our grandchildren.” He added that some people, especially in the business community, will be concerned about any regulations they feel could be a detriment to the local economy and, to a greater extent, their way of life.
“Being in non-attainment means a costly implementation plan that could harm the economy. It could raise the cost of doing business,” Nirenberg said. But, he added, there is a bigger problem if air quality remains below standard in San Antonio. Air pollutants can exacerbate asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems, leading to sickness at home or even hospitalization, according to the EPA.
This means adults missing work and children missing school, Nirenberg said.
Krystal Henagan, Texas field organizer for the group Moms Clean Air Force, said the American Lung Association recently estimated that there are more than 40,000 children and 70,000 adults in the county living with ozone-caused breathing problems. Dr. Vince Fonseca, a former state epidemiologist, said he often sees in his pharmacy the effects of ozone on people’s breathing.
“It isn’t just a health issue, it’s a community issue. It’s about the future of San Antonio,” Nirenberg said.
County Judge Wolff said it will take a lot of work but is confident the San Antonio region can attain the 70 ppb level. It could take two to three years for the federal government to determine whether the San Antonio area is officially non-compliant, but stakeholders can do something in the meantime to try and prevent that designation from happening.
Wolff called for greater emphasis on alternative fuels and alternative forms of transit. He expressed disappointment in City and County leaders last year for shutting down a plan for a downtown-area streetcar system.
But Wolff said he supports commuter rail, which the Lone Star Rail District hopes to realize, and ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. He also wants to see the B-Cycle program grow from downtown to countywide use. Additionally, CPS Energy is “headed in the right direction” with a greater concentration on energy conservation and alternative energy sources, Wolff said.
Increasing the housing stock in and around downtown further reduces reliance on transportation, and encourages more walking, biking and usage of mass transit in short distances, he said. Monitoring the flaring and venting in the Eagle Ford shale area remains important, as well.
“Some of the programs we’ll look at will be critical to getting to the 70 standard,” Wolff said.
Councilmember Nirenberg applauded Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6) and the City’s Office of Sustainability for having led the way on some measures to improve local air quality. He included examples such as a traffic signal system modernization program, energy-efficient projects at City facilities, and citywide anti-idling regulations.
Councilmember Nirenberg added that the AACOG Air Improvement Resources (AIR) Executive Committee agreed on an accord that will promote cooperation among regional partners, including the business community.
According to Nirenberg, Austin-area officials estimate a non-attainment designation for their region could cost their economy up to $41 billion over a 30-year period. No such official economic analysis for the San Antonio area exists, but Peter Bella said the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality can help fund such a study and discuss possible specific solutions. Nirenberg expects the entire Council to consider an action plan in the near future.
“We are celebrating a milestone but we have a long ways to achieve where we need to be” with air quality, said Councilmember Lopez. He added that everybody basically recognizes the importance and benefits of ensuring a good environment and everyone can do their part. CPS Energy’s plan to shut its two-unit, 871-megawatt JT Deely coal station by 2018 is one such way towards improving local air quality, Lopez said, “the consequences of not doing so are too severe.”
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He and Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) agreed that business and public entities, as well as individuals, can make a difference with air quality in their own ways.
“To be successful, we all will have to have an aggressive plan moving forward,” Lopez said.
Councilmember Gonzales said a newly launched initiative, Vision Zero, which calls for zero traffic fatalities, can help to improve local air quality by promoting use of mass transit and other forms of transportation.
“This (EPA announcement) is unfortunate news in that it forces us to make drastic changes,” said Gonzales. “Now is the time to make right for our citizens. We must challenge other officials and people about how we get around.”
*Top image: Downtown San Antonio on a particularly smoggy day. Technically “smog” is ground level ozone. Photo courtesy of SA Clean Technology Forum.