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Group touts benefits for new EPA ozone attainment standards

Thursday, January 7, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

A coalition of environmental and medical groups as well as state representatives say a new federal Environmental Protection Agency standard for ozone air quality is a positive step for cleaning up the air in Austin and around the state.


The EPA recently lowered the nationwide ozone standard from 75 to 70 parts per million. Austin barely avoided nonattainment last year with a 75 ppm average. The group said, however, that an inability to meet the standard could cost local governments across Texas millions of federal dollars in highway funds.


Eva Hernandez of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign used the occasion to argue against the plethora of coal power plants in Texas that emit nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. She said the new standard presented an opportunity to “halt coal permits and cancel proposed plants.”


She targeted large industrial emitters such as cement kilns, refineries, coal plants and smaller emitters such as vehicles and traffic, saying required changes in air quality “will help Texas to be healthier.” Hernandez acknowledged that the “tough part is that non-attainment areas are going to double. She said the Fayette coal plant is the fifth dirtiest plant out of 17 in the state and lambasted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for providing what she called a “rubber stamp” for new coal plants.


Dr. Don Williams, board member of Austin Physicians for Social Responsibility, said he wanted to recognize the importance of the new standard saying that studies had shown pollution “plays a major role in the development of emphysema, bronchitis, strokes, lung cancer and heart disease.”


He said the quality of the air “is virtually the only factor we as a society can control,” and noted Texas had 1,100 premature deaths and nearly 34,000 asthma attacks per year that can be attributed pollution. Dr. Williams also said that nationally, pollution contributes to more deaths than either drunk driving or murder.


Cyrus Reed, conservation director with the Sierra Club said “locally produced emissions are about 80 percent from vehicles. But added that as an industry the largest emitters of nitric oxide are coal plants, which provide the largest “bang for the buck.”


State Rep Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) was present, as was a representative for Austin Sen. Kirk Watson. Rodriguez acknowledged that Travis County and some of the surrounding governments had entered into an early action compact with the EPA back in 2002.


“We have worked diligently to improve our air quality and achieve attainment status,” he said. He called the new levels “important for us and the entire state,” because despite these efforts, the area would still fall into non-attainment. He urged a statewide effort in order to reduce emissions, and opined that the upcoming TCEQ sunset review was “a great opportunity” for legislators to bring political will to bear on the agency to comply with federal air quality standards.


Paul Rolke of the environmental group Our Land Our Lives also spoke, and brought up the possibility that the EPA may step into the regulatory role for the state agency. TCEQ’s authority to operate “could be a repercussion” of the new standard.


Ozone, often referred to as smog, forms when hydrocarbons and nitric oxide react with sunlight and heat. There are many associated health hazards to high ozone levels, and falling out of attainment with federal regulations can also impact state planning and finances, especially in regard to transportation projects.


If the EPA designates an area as being in non-attainment, federal highway dollars can be cut and extensive planning and review processes will be added to a variety of projects – ranging from roads to industry relocation.

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