Vincent Nathan, interim San Antonio Metropolitan Health District director, briefs the City Council on how air quality affects human health on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Local officials are doubling their efforts to tackle air quality in San Antonio. This comes after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new national standard – 70 parts per billion (ppb) to limit smog-forming pollution.

The City Council was briefed during B Session on Wednesday about how a multi-pronged, long-term approach could show regulators on how San Antonio is doing its part to improve ozone readings. Ozone is formed by the reaction of pollutants in heat and sunlight.

San Antonio has officially been the only large U.S. city with a clean record in regards to the federal Clean Air Act. But the city unofficially has been non-compliant 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 classify the City in non-attainment, which could lead to air quality regulations that would require expensive limitations and retrofits on significant local emitters of ground-level ozone.

Brenda Williams, director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG), told the Council that such a designation could come in October 2017. Among Texas urban areas, only Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston/Galveston/Brazoria are on par with or are higher than San Antonio/New Braunfels in exceeding the 70 ppb level.

“We’re virtually guaranteed of being in non-attainment in 2017,” Williams said. A three-year average of eight-hour ozone concentration values is 78 at one monitoring station at Camp Bullis. According to AACOG, on-road (vehicles) and point sources (i.e., smelting and cement plants, manufacturers) are significantly responsible for most nitrogen oxide emissions in the San Antonio metropolitan statistical area.

Once a designation is made, officials from that area are responsible for developing a plan to demonstrate what limits and changes local governments and industry could place to help achieve attainment, or compliance. The deadline for attainment in a “marginal” area is Dec. 31, 2020. The deadline for attainment in a “moderate” area is Dec. 31, 2023.

Between now and fall 2017, AACOG will help to develop a control strategy analysis, an outline of the costs associated with non-attainment, and an enhanced ozone monitoring network.

The main problem is that San Antonio’s current air pollution ordinance was originally put on the books in 1959, and last updated in 1982. It neither references the Texas Clean Air Act, nor can it be enforced by the court by existing codes. Additionally, it only applies to small air pollution sources.

A new ordinance, said interim Metro Health Director Vincent Nathan, would be enforceable, adopt rules and regulations in the state’s Clean Air Act, and apply to all local emitters.

“The new program wouldn’t be any more burdensome than what the state asks for now,” Nathan added.

The City’s Office of Sustainability provided Council members with a report, formed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on potential emission control strategies.

“These are prioritized by cost and the potential for reduction (of pollutants),” said department Director Douglas Melnick.

Melnick explained that San Antonio is in a prime position to “lead by example” and develop a collaborative approach involving all kinds of stakeholders, and not just those in Bexar County.

He outlined major pollution reduction measures, including some the City is already employing, such as alternative fuels for the vehicle fleet at the San Antonio International Airport.

Another pollution reduction measure, a comprehensive anti-idling policy, could be considered by the Council this December, Melnick said. Such an anti-idling policy would apply to private sector heavy duty vehicles. Next year, the City could look at incentivizing its own commuting employees, based on how they get to and from work.

Council members expressed general support for the strategies that certain City departments and AACOG are laying out to help the area achieve air quality attainment. But Councilmember Joe Krier (D9), who presided over Wednesday’s meeting in place of Mayor Ivy Taylor, asked why San Antonio is close to being officially non-compliant while the City of Austin appears to be “safe.”

“We’ve been dreading going out of attainment for what seems like 20 years now. We’ve been inching up and inching up,” Krier said. “Help me understand how we’re sliding in and how Austin is staying out.”

Melnick and Williams said there are some geographic aspects and weather patterns that, when mixed during the spring and summer ozone season, are not in San Antonio’s favor.

“I’ve always thought we’ve been a victim of geography in this regard,” Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) said, adding that emissions from Eagle Ford drilling operations and even in Mexico could affect local pollution levels.

Williams added that Austin is a comparatively smaller city, with overall fewer vehicles, and has voluntarily entered a program for vehicle emissions testing. She added that Austin comparatively has fewer point sources of emissions.

For some observers, doing something with vehicles, especially heavy duty emitting trucks, is a major objective to help San Antonio arrive at attainment. Krier asked if the City could officially ask for drivers of diesel trucks to take alternate routes, especially at peak traffic times, and avoid the city center.

Melnick and City Manager Sheryl Sculley replied something could be done and more research into the matter would be conducted.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) expressed confidence that experts are on the case, helping the City with its air quality problems. Nirenberg chairs AACOG’s Air Improvement Resources (AIR) Committee.

“We have probably the best minds in Texas on how to get us out of this mess,” he said. He also reemphasized how SA Tomorrow, the City’s effort at a multi-pronged, long-range comprehensive plan, can help improve air quality years down the road. Encouraging the development of various types of affordable housing, in more walkable neighborhoods closer to transit, employment and recreation, is a major goal in the comprehensive plan. Another goal is to decrease a “car-dependent culture” and increase transportation options.

“That seems to be the gold standard with this approach,” Nirenberg said while he and colleagues were briefed on the progress with SA Tomorrow’s formation.

“We have to get the word out there about this. It’s where the rubber hits the road on air quality, sustainability and transportation.”

“It’s all interconnected,” responded John Dugan, director for the City’s Planning and Community Development Department, which is helping to oversee the comprehensive plan.

AACOG also will do a public opinion survey and a regional strategic plan. Since the late ’90s and early 2000s, when San Antonio faced a similar challenge, AACOG has led the way in public outreach and education to help individuals better understand ozone and how they can help improve air quality.

When needed, AACOG puts out an air quality health alert via various media outlets, publicizes ways to reduce pollution such as driving the speed limit or carpooling, and incentivizes businesses and organizations to operate in air quality friendly conditions.

To this extent, the Council on Wednesday also learned how air pollution impacts people’s respiratory health.

According to data circulated by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (Metro Health) the percentage of adults diagnosed with asthma in this area has risen from 7% in 2010 to nearly 9% in 2013.

“We are at average for asthma prevalence nationally, and that’s not a good thing,” interim Metro Health Director Nathan, told the Council.

Additionally, the rate of asthma hospital patients increased significantly between 2011 and 2013 among students in the Edgewood, San Antonio, East Central and North East independent school districts.

As long as air pollution impacts human health, Nirenberg has said, performance of students in school and adults at work decreases because they are at home sick or hospitalized.

Nathan said Metro Health is planning a three-phase approach that will involve studying what emissions are mostly responsible for air pollution in the area, ozone precursors, and how small businesses can help to reduce air pollutants.

*Top image: Vincent Nathan, interim San Antonio Metropolitan Health District director, briefs the City Council on how air quality affects human health. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.