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Zimmerman, Clean Air panel clash over EPA letter

Thursday, March 12, 2015 by Sunny Sone

After verbal clashes between Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the Central Texas Clean Air Coalition approved its version of a draft letter to the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday about possible changes in ozone standards. All Council members approved the motion except Zimmerman, who abstained.

“I would like this letter to be sweeter, Mr. Zimmerman would like it to be spicier,” Eckhardt said.

The EPA is proposing making air quality requirements more stringent by lowering the level of acceptable ozone from 75 parts per billion to 65-70 parts per billion. The Austin area has had difficulty meeting the air quality standards, due partially to the area’s own emissions as well as from emissions blowing in from Houston.

The Clean Air Coalition is a subcommittee of the Capital Area Council of Governments, which develops, adopts and implements clean air plans to maintain compliance with federal ozone standards for Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties. It comprises representatives from each town, city and county in the five-county region.

The coalition’s letter asks the EPA to allow the Austin area an exception to compliance with more stringent standards so it can continue to take voluntary measures toward maintaining cleaner air. If the region reaches “nonattainment” status, the area will have to shoulder associated economic burdens such as vehicle emission inspections.

Eckhardt and Zimmerman conflicted repeatedly during the discussion of the letter. She told Zimmerman to back down during public comment from a Sierra Club member and over several points of order.

Eckhardt’s father, former U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt, represented Houston in Congress from 1967 to 1981 and worked on passage of the 1970 legislation that created the EPA. She acknowledged that the letter would, by its nature, be bland, because it expresses “collective concern” from the coalition members.

Zimmerman, who was appointed to the coalition by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, spoke repeatedly during the meeting about changing the group’s focus from “complying with standards” to examining the scientific methods that determine those standards. Ahead of the meeting, Zimmerman emailed coalition members challenging the content of a backup document to the EPA letter. He attached his own version of a draft letter that questions the soundness of the EPA’s science.

“We’re utterly, utterly dependent on expert things that we’ve heard, and so my observation is that we haven’t heard enough from some scientists that are critical of the EPA data,” Zimmerman said.

His letter draws directly from research performed by Dr. Michael Honeycutt, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality chief toxicologist. Zimmerman said Honeycutt is at the forefront of a scientific movement questioning the adverse effects of ozone on human health.

However, while uncertainty about the topic persists, a 2008 report from the National Research Council confirmed that ozone does have a detrimental effect on health.

During the discussion, Zimmerman called Dr. Julie Goodman, an adjunct professor at Harvard and board-certified toxicologist at environmental firm Gradient. She told the coalition that the EPA was distorting the severity of risks associated with ozone in the air, echoing Honeycutt’s arguments. Particularly, she said recent EPA studies supporting the change in standards were not very different from earlier studies.

Goodman’s testimony had little effect on the coalition’s ultimate vote. Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw said that no action the coalition takes would make an immediate, recognizable difference, emphasizing the group’s long-term impact.

“We can’t say for this, with all the sources out there, tomorrow we’re going to go do this and it’s going to go away,” McGraw said. “Part of the balance with this is recognizing there are things we can’t control in the region, and we’re asking the EPA to take that into account.”

This was the coalition’s first meeting of 2015 and Zimmerman’s first meeting as the representative from Austin. Because it was the first meeting, members also elected officers. Zimmerman and Eckhardt were both nominated for chair of the coalition. Every member of the board voted for Eckhardt except Zimmerman, who voted for himself.


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