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Austin at risk for violating federal ozone standards

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Ozone levels in the Austin area have been hovering just below federal violation levels for the last six years.

Ground-level ozone – or “bad” ozone – is an ingredient in smog and a primary pollutant that can cause a number of health problems.

With weather patterns becoming more extreme due to climate change, Central Texas summer temperatures will be hotter, and that means a higher risk of bad ozone days. Last year, Austin had 10 days of air quality deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups, which follows closely on the heels of 2015’s 12 days of bad air quality.

Air quality is determined to be “bad” if any pollutant rises above the predetermined compliance levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Standards implemented by the EPA in 2015 state that good air quality permits 55 parts per billion of all air pollutants. Bad air quality is determined if the air has 71-85 parts per billion of all air pollutants.

“Ground-level ozone is like a sunburn for your lungs,” Phoebe Romero with the Office of Sustainability told the Environmental Commission at its June 5 meeting. Risk of exposure to bad ozone is elevated in the summertime months because more people are outside and temperatures are hotter.

High temperatures and blazing sunshine contribute to worsened air quality by magnifying the greenhouse effect that traps and radiates heat within the atmosphere.

Austin is the largest city that is in compliance with all of the required atmospheric levels mandated by the EPA’s established National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Yet the city is on the cusp of being out of compliance in 2019, Andrew Hoekzema with the Capital Area Council of Governments told the Environmental Commission. Last year, he said, “We managed to remain in compliance just barely.”

So far in 2019, there have been no days that have reached unhealthy levels of air quality. Seventeen days were considered “moderate” in terms of air quality. However, Hoekzema told the commissioners it is still too early to determine if this year will have fewer bad air quality days than last year. August and September, he explained, are the worst days of the year for ozone, and there is a risk of bad ozone up through the end of October.

If this year’s air quality is any worse than last year’s, Hoekzema says the city will be in violation of national air quality standards. If that happens, there can be consequences even beyond public health.

Hoekzema told the Austin Monitor in an email, “If EPA designates an area as ‘nonattainment,’ new permitting requirements and restrictions on construction and expansion of large point sources of emissions (factories, power plants) would take effect. Also, there would be new restrictions and requirements on federal approvals of transportation plans and funding and other types of projects (like approving rail projects or airport expansions). Some of these restrictions can continue to apply for at least 20 years even after the area is able to bring its air pollution back into attainment of the standards due to ‘maintenance’ requirements in the Clean Air Act.”

“I think the average person in Austin knows zero about what is going on,” Commissioner Mary Ann Neely said.

Romero noted that outreach is of primary importance as the city works toward the goals of Net Zero Community GHG Emissions and 65 percent renewable energy by 2027. Neely told commissioners that those who live in Austin are the ones who will make the difference by taking everyday steps to lower their own emissions by driving less and using fossil fuel-powered appliances sparingly.

Chair Linda Guerrero pointed out that there are also steps that the city can take to limit emissions by creating ordinances that allow for enforceable limits on building sites. “Because right now, we have nothing,” she said.

Photo by the National Archives at College Park [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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