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Travis County Makes Big Push to limit ozone

Monday, February 9, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners are trying to avoid having the county fail EPA air-quality standards through an initiative they are calling the “Big Push.” The goal is to use policies and incentives to avoid “Ozone Action Days,” where the amount of ozone in the air exceeds the EPA standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb).


On December 10, 2008, the TCEQ recommended that Travis County be designated as a “non-attainment area,” which means they have failed to meet federal ozone standards. On January 21, the commissioners asked county staff from the Transportation and Natural Resources division for specific recommendations and policy suggestions that they could consider to avoid the designation. Last week, they unanimously approved a motion to take such recommendations “into consideration.”


The stakes are high. Travis County must achieve an ozone value of 77 ppb or less in 2009 in order for the three-year average to be below the federal threshold of 75 ppb. If the county fails, then the EPA is likely to designate Travis County as a non-attainment area, which could unleash a cascade of regulations on local businesses, delays for highway projects and, subsequently, a large bill for the county. Judge Sam Biscoe, who is also the vice-chairman of the regional Clean Air Coalition, told the Commissioners Court, “If you go in the non-attainment, you are looking at 25 years of things that you must do.”


According to Air Quality Project Manager Adele Noel, there are many consequences of non-attainment, “General conformity will have to be done,” she said, “which is a review of all Federal projects to make sure there’s not an impact. All transportation projects need to be neutral on their impact; and then there’s non-attainment new source review, which means that any source of pollution that moves into our area would have to have another source reduce its emissions.”


Tom Weber Environmental Quality Program Manager said it would take a concerted effort to bring the county into attainment. “If we can do enough to reduce the formation of excessive ground level ozone during the ozone season, which is April 1 through October 31,” he said, “then it’s plausible that our efforts could pay the dividend of remaining in attainment with the ozone standard.”


Staff recommended several ways to reduce ozone on hot, sunny summer days when the concentration of the pollutant can reach 75 ppb or higher. (Sunlight and heat react chemically with nitrogen and volatile organic compounds to produce ozone.) Staff suggested the county use clean-burning equipment to mow and maintain right of ways and parks (or avoid mowing altogether on potential Ozone Action Days), and prohibiting county fuel stations from filling non-emergency vehicles before 6 p.m.


Staff also suggested using the traditional media, Channel 17 and a voice mail message to county employees to broadcast that the next day would be an Ozone Action Day. County residents can help by carpooling, avoiding filling their gas tank, bringing a sack lunch instead of driving to a restaurant and not mowing their lawns.


Staff also suggested an Employee Ozone Action Day Telecommute Plan to allow up to 20 percent of County employees to work from home or change their hours. They also suggested encouraging employees to use a bicycle or mass transit to commute. County employees could also be required to pay a surcharge for parking in downtown county spaces on Ozone Action Days, and these funds could be used to purchase Cap Metro passes for employees. Judge Biscoe wanted to make sure that charging employees for parking spots was legal, and staff said it was.


Commissioners want to implement the Big Push strategy before the ozone season begins in April, and staff said they hope to have a plan ready for approval before then.

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