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Central Texas reacts to new ozone standards

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

After the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Oct. 1 that it would be tightening its ground-level ozone regulations, some in Central Texas likely felt relieved, some expressed frustration and others looked ahead.

The new National Ambient Air Quality Standards reduce the maximum amount of acceptable ground-level ozone in any particular region to 70 parts per billion, down from the 75 parts per billion bar set in 2008. The EPA will begin to make attainment designations based on the new standards by late 2017, using air quality data collected from 2014 through 2016.

Ground-level ozone is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds chemically react in hot temperatures. It can have adverse impacts on the health of Central Texans, especially seniors, small children and those with asthma and other sensitivities.

In November 2014, the agency proposed setting the new standards as low as 65 parts per billion, writing in a fact sheet that “scientific evidence supports a standard within a range of 60 to 70 ppb.”

Dropping the standard to 65 ppb would have made it more likely that the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area – which consists of Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties – would go into nonattainment.

According to an Oct. 1 press release issued by the Capital Area Council of Governments, or CAPCOG, the region’s peak ozone levels have averaged 68 ppb between 2013 and 2015. The new standard, the release states, “may not have a significant impact on Central Texas since the region’s air pollution levels will likely remain low enough to avoid a ‘nonattainment’ designation.”

CAPCOG, which serves cities, counties and other entities in Central Texas, estimates that falling out of attainment would cost the region $24 to $42 billion in economic losses over the next 30 years.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor on Monday, CAPCOG Air Quality Program Manager Andrew Hoekzema said that, while the council did not take a position on whether it would have supported setting the new ozone standard at a lower level, the region still faces the possibility of falling out of attainment, even at 70 ppb. “We’re right on the knife’s edge, really,” he said.

On the other hand, Chrissy Mann, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, argued in an Oct. 1 press release that the new measures do not go far enough. “The EPA’s announcement today brings us one step closer to ensuring cleaner, healthier air for Texas families, but it’s too small a step when lives are at risk,” she wrote.

CAPCOG estimated in its most recent fact sheet on ground-level ozone that “a 1 ppb reduction in peak ozone levels could prevent 2-3 deaths per year in the region.”

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who chairs the Central Texas Clean Air Coalition, a 10-county association that works to keep the region in ozone attainment, provided her perspective in an interview with the Monitor on Monday. “We’ve made some strides, and therefore the goal has been moved a little further down the line,” she said.

“There would have been great advantages to moving it to 65 parts per billion, but as with any performance measure, it’s dependent upon a level of cooperation, and we do have a really good level of cooperation in Central Texas,” Eckhardt continued. “Since we are currently just a hair below the new standard – we’re at 68 parts per billion – this does present a challenge to us.”

In spite of the challenges, Eckhardt was supportive of the strengthened requirements. “This is a very effective program, and instead of bucking it, we should embrace it,” she said.

Eckhardt noted that she would have even supported dropping the requirement below 65 ppb. “If it had gone down to 60 (ppb), certainly that would have been a bigger challenge, and we would have met it. That would have been a better incentive, I think,” she said.

“There are also critics on the other side that say this is too much of a burden and it costs jobs in Texas,” Eckhardt added. “I do not agree with that camp.”

CAPCOG estimates that the region could achieve ground-level ozone averages between 65 and 67 ppb by the end of 2017 and averages between 63 and 65 by the end of 2021.

Hoekzema said that, on average, the air that reaches the region from elsewhere already has a ground-level ozone concentration of 60 ppb, creating a significant challenge for Central Texas and requiring the cooperation of other regions.

Eckhardt also commented on the issue. “Just because they’re blown in from elsewhere doesn’t mean that we aren’t playing a role in them. A lot of what we find is toxic in our air is coming from coal-fired power plants that we are purchasing power from,” she said, adding that automobiles and other gasoline-powered vehicles and appliances also contribute to the problem.

Dropping into the least severe level of nonattainment, according to CAPCOG, would trigger new permitting requirements for power plants, factories and other major emissions sources as well as “restrictions on federal approvals and funding for road construction, transit expansion, rail relocation, airport expansion and several other types of projects” that would last for 20 years even after a region regains its attainment status.

The EPA considers ground-level ozone concentrations between zero and 54 ppb to be “good,” concentrations between 55 and 70 ppb to be “moderate” and concentrations between 71 and 85 ppb to be “unhealthy” for the sensitive groups mentioned above.

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