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Environmental commissioners review emissions reduction plan

Friday, May 7, 2021 by Seth Smalley

The Environmental Commission fielded discussion Tuesday on the Austin Emissions Reduction Plan. Phoebe Romero, the environmental program coordinator with the Office of Sustainability, presented alongside Christiane Alepuz, the services program coordinator with the Capital Area Council of Governments Regional Planning and Services Division.

The emissions plan, which was passed toward the end of 2018, details a 2019-2023 action plan for the region consisting of Austin, Round Rock and Georgetown. Much of the plan focused on strategies to identify and reduce levels of particulate matter, or PM, a mixture of solid and liquid particulate in the air. Particulate matter can be anything from human hair or bleach dust to pollen or mold, as long as it’s smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter.

“The plan is designed to help the region maintain and improve outdoor air quality, reduce the impact of emissions from the region and mitigate the health and environmental, economic and social impacts of air pollution,” Alepuz told commissioners.

The particulate matter in question, however, is smaller than 2.5 micrometers, giving it the ability to penetrate and harm multiple systems of the human body, according to Alepuz. It can be directly emitted from pollution sources or formed in the atmosphere via a chemical reaction. Alepuz drew particular attention to sulfates, nitrates, ammonium, and organic carbons. The health effects range from lung cancer and premature death to cardiovascular, nervous and respiratory system problems.

“Reducing organic carbon PM emissions would be the most important step that the region can take toward reducing the highest annual PM concentrations,” Alepuz said.

A 2019 EPA study found that any decrease in particulate matter exposure – regardless of how little currently exists in an environment – lessens risks to health. That is, any PM exposure is too much.

“That means there are health effects at any level of PMs within the atmosphere,” Alepuz said.

Each jurisdiction in the five-county region committed to a number of actions in support of the effort.

Particulate matter levels, Romero said, are “85 percent of the way there to violating standards.”

Two-thirds of the 365 days in 2020 were considered “good” in terms of the air quality index, while about one-third were considered “moderate,” and a single day was considered unhealthy, said Alepuz. Of the approximately 30 percent of days that were considered moderate, the majority of time it was due to sufficiently high levels of particulate matter (as opposed to ozone).

“It’s kind of a hard way to say it,” Romero told commissioners, “but even though our particulate matter levels aren’t as high when it comes to national air quality standards, it’s still a public health concern.”

Last year, the EPA talked about the prospect of lowering national ambient air quality standards, an act that would put Austin in danger of violating those very thresholds. Though the EPA, for now, has decided to retain current standards at 12 and 15 micrograms per cubic meter for primary and secondary particulate matter levels, respectively, the quantities remain subject to change.

“The law requires the EPA to review these standards every few years,” Alepuz said.

The region has since worked with EPA to form a clean air coalition that creates strategies to mitigate the largest sources of particulate matter in the region.

This item is slated to come before City Council by May 20.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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