One of the most ambitious goals voiced by the citizens of San Antonio and documented for SA2020 in 2011 is also one of the most reasonable: Improve air quality.

Blue skies are as well-known in Texas as bluebonnets. Claims to clean air are as sure a birthright as listening to Willie and Waylon. This is Texas.

So when the great citizens of Texas’ last great clean air city take a stand and say we need to make our good air better for breathing, there’s nothing wrong and everything right with that demand.

But the fact is, the San Antonio region is perilously close to having the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate the city as “nonattainment,” the name you give to just another dirty air city like LA, or Denver … or Houston and Dallas.

From SA2020's Environmental Sustainability section. Graphic courtesy of
From SA2020’s Environmental Sustainability section. Graphic courtesy of

Do we want to get it right? After all, there is no folding and leaving the game – we live here.

The only real answer can be: Get it right and keep it right.

And if we don’t? The federal Clean Air Act provides federal enforcement mechanisms and planning requirements they’ll impose here if we fail to keep our air clean.

Program Manager Robert Gulley and the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan folks were able to put their heads together and come up with a plan that kept the feds from coming to town to do our water planning work for us. If this kind of  strategic governance can be achieved in the realm of water management and conservation, why can’t the same be accomplished managing regional air quality?

The real fundamental reason to clean up our air is breathtakingly simple: Breathing this garbage is just bad for our health.

Those are two pretty good reasons.

View from Omni Hotel
A cold morning in San Antonio, 10 miles from downtown. Iris Dimmick.

In the San Antonio area, air quality planners like me only have one serious air pollutant in mind: ground-level ozone.

When ozone, a naturally occurring gas, resides in the upper atmosphere, it serves as a shield from the harmful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. This is “good” ozone, and the erroneously named “ozone hole” was addressed with the Montreal Protocol in 1987 when 187 countries, including the Unites States, agreed to “phase out production and use of ozone-depleting substances … If (these countries) stop producing ozone-depleting substances, natural ozone production should return the ozone layer to normal levels by about 2050,” according to an informative primer from the EPA, “Ozone: Good up High, Bad Nearby.”

Urban smog is made up of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Graphic courtesy of the EPA.
Urban smog is made up of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Motor vehicles and industrial/commercial processes make up a majority of NOx and VOC production. Graphic courtesy of the EPA.

“Bad” ozone is basically what makes up urban smog – it’s “emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources.”

According to the EPA:

“About 25 million people, including 7 million children, have asthma and over 12 million people report having an asthma attack in the past year. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”

Some San Antonians already recognize that breathing ozone is a threat. Evidence? The air quality goal supplied voluntarily by our citizenry and recorded in the Natural Resources and Sustainability Vision Area (page 74) of the SA2020 Final Report is:

  • Target: Maintain EPA Attainment Compliance; Improve Air Quality by 10% (Ground Level Ozone).

I applaud and support their assessment 100 percent.

Those same folks need to know that, right now, we are in violation of the federal national ambient air quality standard for ground-level ozone, and that we’ve got a tough hill to climb to work our way out before we are declared in “nonattainment.” Our three-year average (2009 -2012) of ground-level ozone violated the EPA’s 76 parts per billion (ppb) standard with a level of 80 ppb in 2012. Now is the time for action.

AACOG logo

They also should also know that there is a group of local elected officials working in the Air Improvement Resources Committee that convenes quarterly at the Alamo Area Council of Governments and that has taken on the noble charge of local air quality planning, at least until – or unless – we officially fail and the federales take over the process.

No elected official worth his or her salt is going to stand idly by while we slip into nonattainment, as a public health risk to our citizens, and at the risk of lost economic development. Even if the dead have a long history of voting in Texas, we all want our family and friends alive and on their feet, strong and healthy, not on a respirator.

Did someone say economic development? Here’s a salient and supportive tidbit. In a 2003 commentary, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Mitchell Schnurman wrote:

“Toyota scratched the Metroplex off its shopping list early, the first time we’ve lost a high-profile project strictly because of air quality, according to several economic development officials. That’s ominous, unless we’re satisfied with simply growing the service side of the economy.”

In other words, Toyota did not even consider north central Texas as a home for the Toyota plant that is now in San Antonio because Dallas-Fort Worth was already in nonattainment for ozone.

Some may contend that even without Toyota, a key and welcome member of our south central Texas familia, a sterling Lone Star in the San Antonio constellation, we would still be fine in terms of our resistance to the economic doldrums suffered by the rest of the United States and our outlook would be ever San Antonio Rose-y.

Since the Toyota manufacturing facility and all of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc.’s local suppliers opened for business, the transportation segment (aerospace and motor vehicle) grew to provide 31.5 percent of all of San Antonio’s manufacturing in 2011. According to a study published in 2012 by the San Antonio Manufacturers’ Association and the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, growth in the transportation segment has helped push manufacturing to become the third largest economic generating sector in San Antonio, contributing some $22.5 billion to the local economy in 2011.

Manufacturing economy graph 060813_PieChart-Illustration-1

Look with me to the future, not the past. Look with me to the choices we have before us.

Let’s budget pollution to be able to afford growth. We may not be able to get back to the Garden of Eden’s pristine air quality, but we sure can’t continue business as usual, either, without suffering nonattainment and greater health risks to us all.

If we make adequate and appropriate reductions in pollution, we can both keep our citizens healthy and provide a buffer for industrial and economic growth without violating air quality standards. It’s a matter of budgeting, as is required in any other economic consideration.

The question is, do we have the collective will to make adequate pollution reductions in our region, in our state, and in our nation on a voluntary basis, or will we necessarily have to fail first in our own efforts and have the feds do it for us?

One way or the other, we’ve got to improve our air quality. One month from now, the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum will convene community leaders, experts and citizens at the Rackspace Castle to further explore the issue and this city’s options. I hope to see you there.

You are invited to join the discussion about managing air quality at the July 11 San Antonio Clean Technology Air Quality Forum, “Keeping It Clean: Our Air, Our Health.”

Following a keynote address by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, moderator Robert Rivard will welcome panelists Doyle Beneby, CEO of CPS Energy; Dr. Thomas Schlenker, Director of Public Health, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District; Elena Craft, Ph.D. in toxicology from Duke University and Health Scientist in the Austin, Texas offices of the Environmental Defense Fund; and this article’s author, Peter Bella, Director of the Natural Resources Department at the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

The luncheon forum is scheduled from 11:30-1:30, July 11, 2013 at Rackspace headquarters, 5000 Walzem Road, 78218. Individual registrations are available through: For more information, contact Scott Storment at

Peter Bella is currently the Natural Resource Director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) in San Antonio.  He has been with AACOG for more than fourteen years.  As Natural Resource Director he provides strategic planning targeting air quality improvements within the 12-county AACOG region of south central Texas.  He is also a member of the AACOG Air Improvement Resources (AIR) Technical Committee. The AIR Committee is responsible for local air quality policy development in the AACOG/Greater San Antonio region as required to meet federal clean air standards. In addition, he serves on the San Antonio River Authority’s San Antonio River Basin Environmental Advisory Committee and is a member of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum Advisory Board. He received a BS in Physics, Magna Cum Laude and a MS in Mathematics, both from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

 Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.

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Peter Bella

Peter Bella is the lead for March for Science - San Antonio 2018, has master's in math from UTSA, and worked in natural resources for the Alamo Area Council of Governments for 16 years until his retirement...