This article has been updated.

San Antonio soon will join the ranks of smoggy cities such as New York and Sacramento, California, after failing to improve its air quality statistics over the past three years, state and federal officials said Monday. 

Officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said during a technical information meeting Monday that Bexar County will be bumped from “marginal” to “moderate” ozone nonattainment “sometime after September” — likely in early 2022. The new designation will mean San Antonio faces new air quality regulatory requirements with intensified federal oversight due to increased health concerns for residents breathing polluted air.

Houston and Dallas are facing the same reclassification, said Cara Scalpone, a TCEQ air modeling data analyst. Both the Dallas and Houston areas were recategorized from “serious” nonattainment under the 2008 standards to marginal by loosened standards in 2015.

In addition to New York and Sacramento, the only other areas of the country currently at moderate nonattainment are parts of two California counties: Nevada County, northeast of Sacramento, and Kern County, near Bakersfield.

The repercussions of the new designation could hit the local economy hard, according to a study co-conducted by Steve Nivin, associate professor of economics at St. Mary’s University. The increased oversight will make San Antonio more difficult to develop and less desirable for companies considering relocation or expansion, Nivin’s study found.

The change from marginal to moderate means TCEQ officials will have to submit a model to the EPA showing a long-term plan for improving Bexar County’s conditions within a year from the reclassification date. Officials would need to begin implementing that plan the following year.

It will also require Bexar County residents to get their vehicles’ emissions inspected annually under a “basic vehicle inspection and maintenance program.” Other counties such as Travis County already have programs like this in place to help keep emissions down, said Brian Foster, an employee in TCEQ’s air quality department. This program would need to be implemented within four years from the reclassification date.

San Antonio’s air quality was first dinged for being noncompliant with the federal Clean Air Act in July 2018, when Bexar County was declared to be under marginal nonattainment, meaning it was too polluted to meet a federal standard for ozone. Ozone — three oxygen atoms bound together — is a key ingredient of smog that irritates and damages the lungs and has been tied to chronic conditions such as asthma. 

At that time, Bexar County was subject to regulations aimed at getting its air quality under the federal threshold of 70 parts per billion by the end of 2020, Foster said. The goal was to return its ozone pollution to a level that would safeguard people with chronic lung conditions and prevent more illness from developing. 

Knowing this would increase costs on new or expanding industrial businesses and change the way local governments planned transportation projects, Texas appealed the EPA’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2018, seeking to avoid the new regulations. Officials from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and TCEQ argued that San Antonio would meet the standards if not for air pollution wafting in from foreign countries.

But 5th Circuit Judges Edith Brown Clement, Jennifer Walker Elrod, and Stuart Kyle Duncan upheld the EPA’s designation in December. 

San Antonio’s levels of ozone — about 72 parts per billion — have remained pretty consistent over the past three years, according to data TCEQ shared Monday.

“It’s looking to me like it’s flattened out, and it isn’t any better or it isn’t any worse,” Foster said. “It looks like it’s kind of leveled off a little bit. We would be hoping to see that number go down.”

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Lindsey Carnett

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