Bexar County’s air quality has officially been downgraded, triggering stricter federal regulations in an effort to bring the region’s air quality into federal compliance.

In a long-expected move this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved Bexar County from “marginal” to “moderate” ozone nonattainment after the region failed to significantly improve its air quality over the previous three years.

One of the most direct effects for Bexar County vehicle owners will likely be annual vehicle emissions inspections added to the state’s existing inspection program.

While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — which now has the regulatory role of enforcing EPA Clean Air Act regulations in San Antonio — hasn’t added Bexar County regulations to its state implementation plan yet, other Texas counties with nonattainment status have vehicle emissions inspection programs in place.

The emissions inspection itself isn’t too costly — it’s roughly $11.50 to $18.50 per vehicle, according to the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which facilitates regional transportation planning for the greater San Antonio Area. But it could come with additional costs for residents who need to make repairs to their vehicles to meet emissions standards.

And while there is no existing funding at the city, county or state level to help residents make the required repairs, there used to be, said Lyle Hufstetler, natural resources project coordinator for the Alamo Area Council Of Governments, which is charged with monitoring and studying local air quality.

Hufstetler said the state legislature ended Texas’ assistance program in 2017.

“Part of the state’s vehicle inspection fees went to a fund that would give assistance to low-income drivers to help repair or replace their vehicles,” Hufstetler said, “but it’s been five years since that’s been gone, so it’s looking like we’ll have to develop something locally — barring any reinstatement of the program during this next session.”

From marginal to moderate

The road to moderate nonattainment has been years in the making.

EPA and TCEQ officials warned Bexar County officials in August of 2021 that the move would be coming after local efforts to improve air quality fell short.

Hufstetler clarified that the reclassification doesn’t mean San Antonio’s air quality has been getting worse.

Instead, the downgrade came about “because it’s been three years since we were officially designated [as being in nonattainment],” Hufstetler said. And the longer a region stays in nonattainment, “the more severe your classification becomes.”

In fact, according to AACOG data, the region reduced ozone levels from 74 parts per billion, or ppb, down to 72 ppb as recently as last fall, but it has not been able to get to the federal threshold of 70 ppb, which the EPA says helps safeguard people with chronic lung conditions and prevents new illnesses from developing.

Ozone is a key ingredient of smog, which irritates and damages the lungs and has been tied to chronic conditions such as asthma.

The EPA classified Bexar County as being in marginal nonattainment in 2018. The reclassification to moderate nonattainment sets a new deadline of Sept. 24, 2024 for San Antonio to attain the 70 ppb standard, Hufstetler said. 

If it doesn’t, Bexar County will be downgraded again, to serious nonattainment, which will bring additional federal requirements — and costs.

Limited local authority

TCEQ is now required to submit a model to the EPA showing a long-term plan for improving Bexar County’s air quality by November 2023, which the agency will have to implement the following year.

The city has no regulatory authority to make companies or individuals meet air quality standards, said Kyle Cunningham, a health program manager for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Metro Health does run a clean air campaign to teach residents how to reduce emissions, and it flags ozone action days,  which are declared when weather conditions are likely to combine with pollution emissions to create more ozone.

“Our main task, since we don’t have regulatory authority, is to educate,” Cunningham said. “We’re trying to do as much of that as we can.”

The county is in the same boat, said Bexar County Public Information Officer Monica Ramos.

Enforcement is “mostly up to AACOG and the state,” Ramos said. “At the county, we just make sure we’re following state law and the federal regulations related to air quality.”

Because of their limited authority, all the city and county can do beyond education is ask for changes at the state level, Cunningham said.

“I feel sure that within this upcoming legislative session the city of San Antonio will make a request for the state to put the program [that assisted low-income drivers] back into place, because there’s a need,” she said. “Hopefully our representatives in that state legislature will take that forward for us.”

Pointing fingers

Complicating efforts to improve air quality locally is the ongoing debate over where the region’s ozone-causing pollution originates.

AACOG 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.

AACOG points to data from the pandemic to back up its case: despite drastically decreased road emissions across San Antonio during the early days of COVID-19, Bexar County still experienced more high-ozone days in the spring of 2020 than it did the previous year.

Despite AACOG’s arguments, however, the EPA’s stance is that no matter where the pollution originates, it is still up to the state of Texas to make sure San Antonio meets federal air quality standards.

In 2020, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the EPA when 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. 

The city uses AACOG data when talking about local pollution sources, and AAMPO uses AACOG data for its own studies and programs on how to reduce vehicle emissions.

During a public meeting earlier this week, AAMPO Transportation Planning Program Manager Clifton Hall noted that AAMPO estimates only 30% of the one-fifth of ozone attributable to San Antonio sources comes from “mobile source emissions” — i.e. vehicles. In other words, only about 6% of local ground-level ozone is attributable to vehicle emissions by AAMPO and AACOG standards.  

Still, Hall said, local agencies are “doing everything we can to limit our slice of the pie, but it’s going to take us all working together to get there.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...