With air quality failing to improve, North Texas may soon be classified as ‘severe’ violator of EPA
The EPA will host a virtual public hearing on the proposed changes May 9. Those who wish to speak must register online by the end of May 5.
In early 2015, as the Environmental Protection Agency considered updates to its national air quality standards for smog, federal officials sat down for a public hearing in Arlington City Hall.
They listened as activists and medical groups from across Texas pushed for rules that would allow less ground-level ozone – also known as “bad ozone” or smog – in the air.
Environmental advocates pointed to the health effects of prolonged exposure to concentrated levels of ground-level ozone. Clinical studies connected air pollution to reduced lung function, higher frequency of asthma episodes and reduced ability to fight respiratory infection, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Jim Schermbeck, longtime director of the North Texas environmental activism group Downwinders at Risk, was among the activists who testified that January.
“There’s a symbolism to defeating smog,” Schermbeck said in an interview. “It’s the most visible evidence of not taking air pollution seriously. To reduce smog is to make things better, and in fact, it is better in DFW. Progress has been made, but not enough progress has been made to get us out of violation of the Clean Air Act.”
To determine if a region has violated ozone standards, the EPA averages the fourth-worst ozone pollution days over a period of three years. Between 2011 and 2014, the North Texas region averaged about 81 parts per billion of ozone over an eight-hour period, well above the federal standard of 75 parts per billion established in 2008.
Today, more than seven years after that EPA hearing, the Dallas-Fort Worth average lingers at 76 parts per billion – still too high to meet the 2008 standard or the most recent 2015 standard of 70 parts per billion. 2021 was a deadline year to meet both of the standards.
“We’ve got the cleanest air that we’ve ever had in the region, but it’s stagnated since 2018,” said Chris Klaus, senior air quality management program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which is tasked with helping local governments meet federal requirements. “That is not to say that everyone is exposed to those high levels of ozone. The worst air is only at certain areas and certain monitors.”
Last month, after facing a lawsuit accusing the agency of dragging its feet on ozone regulation enforcement, the EPA announced its intention to downgrade the air quality status of five metro areas. Under the new designation, the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Denver, Chicago and New York metro areas will be listed as “severe” violators of the 2008 ozone standards.
Penalties for not meeting the Clean Air Act standards mostly consist of stricter pollution controls and revising state implementation plans. However, a region that is classified as a “severe” violator can impose financial penalties of $5,000 per ton on major pollution sources if they do not meet required ozone reductions.
“Smog pollution is a serious threat to public health, increasing the likelihood of respiratory infections, asthma attacks and hospital visits,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an April statement. “With these proposed determinations, we are fulfilling our duty under the Clean Air Act.”
Legal challenges to ‘severe’ status expected
The change would force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other state environmental agencies to adopt more stringent pollution control requirements on industry and revise their plans for reducing ozone levels statewide.
Businesses could be required to follow stricter air pollution permitting rules, purchase pollution control technology or potentially face delays in permitting while the region attempts to reduce smog, according to the Texas Tribune.
Industry groups representing manufacturers and oil and gas producers have previously opposed stricter air pollution regulations, with the Texas Association of Manufacturers arguing at the 2015 hearing that new ozone regulations would “decimate” Texas jobs for a “feel-good” change.
While the new designation for North Texas has not been fully adopted yet, Schermbeck called it a “done deal.”
“It’s been in the works since last year when the results from the ozone season last summer were locked in,” he said. “This is all highly scripted theater. We’re going to be moved up to severe, and we deserve that.”
However, Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Austin-based Lone Star Sierra Club, expects the state of Texas to pursue litigation fighting the EPA’s latest moves impacting North Texas and Houston.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has previously filed legal challenges to stricter federal air quality requirements and the EPA’s attempts to re-classify cities, including El Paso, as more severe violators of the ozone standards. The timeline for a decision on the state’s lawsuit could be dragged out to late 2023 or early 2024 depending on if and when Texas files it, Carman said.
In the meantime, new ozone data will come in and potentially bring Texas into compliance with the 2008 standard of 75 parts per billion, he added.
A single air monitor near Pilot Point in Denton County is pulling the entire 10-county region into not complying with ozone standards because of its high readings over the past three years, Carman said. High readings have also come from air monitors near Eagle Mountain Lake, northwest Fort Worth and Keller.
“If you look at the last 10 to 15 years, the trend (for ozone) is clearly down, even though there is tremendous growth in freeways, there is growth in the number of vehicles and miles traveled,” Carman said. “By the time they come up with a state implementation plan for the DFW area for the severe status, I wouldn’t be surprised if they will meet the standard of 75 by then.”
While air quality is better, advocates say Texas must do more
Since amendments regulating ground-level ozone were made to the Clean Air Act in 1990, North Texas has seen massive improvements in reducing harmful emissions, Klaus said. The region was in the 125-130 range for ozone parts per billion back then.
The council of governments has largely focused on transportation-related changes, like retiring vehicles and equipment with heavy-duty diesel engines; reducing traffic congestion and idling; providing funding for alternative fuel vehicles; and leading public campaigns to take fewer car trips and operate vehicles in ways that reduce emissions.
In turn, the average ground-level ozone has hovered around 76 parts per billion since 2018. The plateau has concerned local officials trying to bring the region into compliance with EPA standards. Klaus pointed to the conundrum that the COVID-19 pandemic posed. With fewer cars or trucks on the road, ozone levels did not improve in North Texas.
“Our vision and our understanding of all this is changing daily,” Klaus said. “Why is it that our emissions basically didn’t get any better, with all those reductions that were unfortunately having to be implemented because of the pandemic? There’s a lot of research that’s ongoing now to try to figure all of that out.”
“The state has established a track record now of sacrificing the health of Texans and suing on behalf of polluters.”
Activists like Schermbeck and Ranjana Bhandari, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, want the state’s ozone plans to focus less on reducing vehicle emissions and more on regulating industrial pollution.
Bhandari, whose group leads opposition to the expansion of natural gas drilling in Tarrant County, has been part of the EPA’s process to develop new rules cutting methane emissions associated with oil and gas production. She testified at the Arlington hearing in 2015 and plans to speak again at the EPA’s public hearing May 9.
“There’s so many emissions from gas drilling that contribute to ozone,” Bhandari said. “The state has established a track record now of sacrificing the health of Texans and suing on behalf of polluters. It seems like a very inappropriate way to discharge their responsibilities toward residents, but that’s what it is … It should all be of concern to the EPA.”
Klaus is optimistic that the region’s ozone levels will continue to fall, especially with the potential for more electric vehicle charging infrastructure to be built out by the late 2020s. The council of governments is in wait-and-see mode until the “severe” violator status becomes official, and if the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality asks Klaus and his colleagues to begin revising their implementation plan for reducing smog.
The tools to improve air quality are already available to government officials, Schermbeck said, but any future progress on ozone is “purely a political decision.” The EPA’s classification of North Texas as a “severe” violator could mean very little if the state government continues to find loopholes or drag its feet on regulating pollution, he added.
“We have access to the expertise and technology we need to reduce emissions enough to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act, but the state government has chosen not to deploy them,” Schermbeck said. “There’s no framework for state and local action on this stuff because of the state’s lack of interest in clean air as a goal. If you leave all of that in place, nothing will change.”