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By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Some local officials call it the ring around the bathtub: the grimy haze that envelopes Dallas and Fort Worth during peak periods of air pollution, like the summer ozone season or even the morning commute. It's caused by nearly 600 tons of nitrous oxide, or NOx emissions, that are dumped into our air every day. But Greg Cooke, the Regional Administrator with the EPA, says those emissions could be cut almost in half with the help of a plan initially approved by his agency yesterday.

Greg Cooke, Regional Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency: The current plan, in EPA's opinion, meets the federal standards, but there still is a very small margin of safety. All of the measures contained in this plan must be implemented and work as envisioned for the air in North Texas to meet the health-based standards by 2007.

Sprague: Known as the State Implementation Plan, or SIP, the proposal includes lowering the highway speed limit by 5 miles per hour; prohibiting construction in the early morning hours; requiring more stringent smog tests for cars; and cutting back on emissions from such polluters as cement kilns and electricity plants. But federal officials admit they don't expect all of these measures to work as well as the plan projects. Again, Greg Cooke.

Cooke: In order for this plan to actually work - to clean up the air and let the people breathe cleaner air, as opposed to merely showing attainment on a computer monitor - officials in this room at the state, local and federal level will need to continue to identify and implement additional measures that will clean up the air cleaner and quicker if certain measures identified now don't work exactly as planned.

Sprague: The new regulations can be implemented by the state's environmental agency, the TNRCC, but the state legislature has the power to overturn them. A number of industries have been very vocal with lawmakers about their opposition to the plan and have even taken the state to court over parts of it. But TNRCC Commissioner Ralph Marquez believes all of the lawsuits can be resolved out of court.

Ralph Marquez, Commissioner, Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission: Six lawsuits were filed to contest some of the rules. I am glad to report to you that we have settled with TXU two of those lawsuits. We expect a quick resolution of the lawsuit by the airlines.

Sprague: Delta Air Lines was the one carrier which had not agreed to reduce its emissions in North Texas. But Marquez said yesterday that the airline has changed its mind and will meet the new clean air standards. Many environmentalists, however, are concerned the remaining lawsuits pose a real threat to the plan's viability. Mark McLeod is with the group Environmental Defense in Dallas.

Mark McLeod, Environmental Defense: If any one strategy fails to reach 100% of its goal, the region will not achieve attainment. If any of the pending lawsuits are successful, the region will not achieve attainment. And unfortunately, no measures were placed into the SIP to provide a buffer against these events.

Sprague: North Texas is also affected by Houston, another metropolitan area which has to come up with new clean air guidelines. Officials acknowledge that if Houston doesn't reduce its emissions, then Dallas won't be able to meet the federal guidelines, and could risk losing transportation funding. The EPA will take public comments on the clean air plan for two months, then Greg Cooke says the agency expects to approve the plan formally. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.