Despite local efforts to reduce airborne pollution in recent years, San Antonio’s air quality hasn’t improved, and stricter federal regulations are about to be triggered because of it.

Those regulations are aimed at reducing the harmful health effects of smog and other pollutants on residents, but they will also bring higher economic costs.

Yet as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prepares to reclassify the Bexar County region from “marginal” to “moderate” nonattainment, disagreements about where the pollution originates could complicate efforts to reduce it.

The Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG), which monitors and studies local air quality, estimates that activity within San Antonio accounts for only about a fifth of the ozone recorded, while the rest comes from outside the area — mainly Mexico or other states.

But the EPA doesn’t buy that argument and has said it is still up to the state of Texas to meet federal air quality standards.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently agreed; in 2020 it ruled against Texas, which argued in 2018 that because most of San Antonio’s pollution was drifting up from Mexico, it shouldn’t be moved to marginal nonattainment.

Yet that argument still appears to hold sway locally. AACOG stands by its research, and Richard Perez, president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce told the San Antonio Report last week that the chamber has urged the EPA to hold off on its stricter designation, citing AACOG’s data that most of the region’s pollution comes from outside the area.

The EPA will likely hear similar entreaties on Monday morning, when it hosts a virtual hearing regarding its proposed action to reclassify the status of Bexar County’s air quality. Officials from AACOG and the city will be in attendance.

News about San Antonio’s air quality is not all bad. Wrote EPA spokesman Joe Robledo to the San Antonio Report: “We are not finding that the area’s air quality worsened, rather it did not improve such that the health-based standard was met.”

The region was able to reduce ozone levels from 74 parts per billion, or ppb, down to 72 ppb as recently as last fall, but it has never been able to reach the federal threshold of 70 ppb, which helps safeguard people with chronic lung conditions and prevent additional illnesses from developing.

That failure put the area into marginal nonattainment in 2018.

This likely reclassification to moderate nonattainment sets a new deadline of Sept. 24, 2024, for San Antonio to attain the standard. If it doesn’t, Bexar County will be reclassified to serious nonattainment, which will bring additional federal requirements, Robledo said.

The comment period for citizens and organizations to remark on the EPA’s proposed action closes on June 13, 2022.

Measuring and pinpointing air pollution

An area’s air quality is determined by the amount of ground-level ozone and other “criteria pollutants” it has in it per parts billion, as recorded by local monitoring systems. Ozone is a key ingredient of smog, which irritates and damages the lungs and has been tied to chronic conditions such as asthma. 

For many years, San Antonio was one of the few large cities that met national air quality standards — until those standards were tightened in 2015. The region was given until 2018 to lower its ground-level ozone to 70 ppb or below; that deadline was pushed back to 2020, but to no avail.

“On-road mobile sources” — basically, vehicle emissions — make up roughly 40% of the ground-level ozone contributed directly by the region, according to AACOG’s air quality studies. That’s followed by “non-road mobile sources” such as planes, trains, construction equipment and even lawn equipment, which AACOG estimates make up another quarter of the area’s ground-level ozone.

Only about 9% of local ground-level ozone comes from “point,” or single sources, such as factories and CPS Energy’s coal and natural gas plants, according to AACOG.

And the agency still maintains that most of the pollution in the region comes from outside the area. For that reason and many others, improving air quality is “a very complex problem,” said Lyle Hufstetler, natural resources project coordinator for AACOG.

Only a fifth of the region’s ozone pollution is generated inside the San Antonio-New Braunfels metro area, according to research from the Alamo Area Council of Governments. The EPA has said Texas is still responsible for meeting federal ozone standards, regardless of where the pollution originates. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Area Council of Governments

But it’s also a critical problem to solve, as air quality is directly tied to respiratory health, said Dr. Erika Gonzalez, president and CEO of South Texas Allergy & Asthma Medical Professionals.

As a doctor who specializes in treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, Gonzalez said she sees how San Antonio’s poor air quality affects residents on a daily basis. Pollutants like ground-level ozone can cause or worsen lung disease, asthma and other related illnesses.

“Poor air quality means there’s going to be more days where the air is going to be at a point to where it’s going to flare up [my patient’s] symptoms,” she said.

Gonzalez said local officials must do what it takes to create policies to reduce pollution.

“We need to come together and create policy that’s going to help the improve the air quality and make sure everybody will be held accountable.”

The costs of compliance

The repercussions of the new federal designation could hit the local economy hard, according to a 2017 study co-conducted by Steve Nivin, associate professor of economics at St. Mary’s University. 

The increased oversight could make San Antonio more expensive to develop and less desirable for companies considering relocation or expansion, the study found.

It’s not just businesses that could suffer. The average person will likely have to pay more for transportation — either in vehicle maintenance for their own car or in subsidizing maintenance for public transportation vehicles, the study found.

All told, the study found, changes from the tighter rules could cost the region between $7.1 billion and $36.2 billion in lost manufacturing opportunities, additional permitting and inspection fees and other costs.

Businesses will have to prepare and adjust for the nonattainment designation, which could increase operating costs and squeeze profit margins, straining already stressed business owners, said the chamber’s Perez.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must prepare a state implementation plan outlining ways to clean up San Antonio’s air by a deadline that will be set by the EPA.

Proposed federal controls on power plants, oil and gas, and mobile source emissions may help, the EPA’s Robledo said — but as Texas has historically fought federal intervention, it’s unclear how much or how quickly those could help.

And while the City of San Antonio will not have a regulatory role to enforce the plan, the city remains committed, through its Climate Action Plan, to reduce air pollution as part of its effort to make the city carbon neutral by 2050.

It will be difficult for the city and county to reduce air pollution, AACOG’s Hufstetler acknowledged — but not impossible. The city’s climate plan will certainly help, he said, and individuals can make a difference too — after all, it’s people’s cars that are contributing the most to ozone-creation.

Hufstetler recommended carpooling, public transportation, bicycling or combining trips — whatever it takes to drive less often. Turning up the thermostat a few degrees in the summer or down a few degrees in the winter can help conserve energy, which improves air quality.

While everyone can contribute to cleaner air, it will take getting all parties to make changes to get San Antonio there, Hufstetler added.

“It has to be a comprehensive solution; we have to have all individuals, all industries, all sectors,” he said.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.