TCEQ: At It Again

Dr. Elena Craft, toxicologistWe hear a lot about the jobs that will be created as we transition to a clean-energy economy, but as a toxicologist, I like to focus also on the improved air quality that will result. However, until the day comes when everyone drives plug-in hybrids and industrial facilities are non-polluting, we must take immediate steps to ensure cleaner air for ourselves and our children.

That's why I was encouraged by the turnout in support of cleaner air at an event last week. The EPA held one of three national hearings in Houston on its proposed new national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone. The hearings gave the public the opportunity to comment on EPA’s proposal to tighten the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to somewhere between 60-70 ppb.

Still, while doctors and health professionals, mothers, environmental advocates, and other interested parties all testified for the need to protect sensitive populations from ozone exposure, our own state environmental agency – the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – questioned the science behind the proposal and made it clear the new standard would be too costly and even unobtainable.

The testimony of Mike Honeycutt, TCEQ chief toxicologist, was revealing. Here are some telling excerpts:

  • “These studies are based on the supposition that the majority of people breathe outside air 8 to 24 hours each day while the scientific data clearly show this is not the case.”

Should we take this to mean that those who do spend more time outdoors – construction workers, carpenters, utility workers, lifeguards and athletes, to name a few – don’t deserve protection from the health impacts of ozone? 

  • “We hear anecdotally that hospital visits for asthma rise when ozone levels rise, but hospital admissions data show this is not the case.  Texas Inpatient Hospital Discharge data on numbers of hospital visits for asthma between 1999 and 2001 actually show that fewer children in Texas visit the hospital for asthma during peak summer ozone season as compared to wintertime. Results from a 4-year (2000-2003) air quality study conducted by Texas A&M University and Driscoll Children’s Hospital indicate hospital admissions to be weakly correlated with ambient daily maximum ozone levels.  The Kaiser Permanente Report and the Gauderman study in 2004 found no increased hospital admissions in elderly patients and health effects in children due to ozone alone.”

Do bronchial problems increase in winter? Yes, because of complications due to viruses and other illnesses that peak during this time. Honeycutt hears “anecdotally” about the relationship between asthma and hospital visits but one must wonder if he's actually read the reports on this subject. Studies continue to demonstrate a causal relationship between high ozone concentrations, the latest just released by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which reported a 19 percent increase in ICU admissions on higher ozone days.

Is it just coincidence that Honeycutt chose to single out these reports from among more than 1,700 papers on the issue? When the EPA’s independent, statutorily-established expert panel, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), convened to develop a health-based ozone standard – after examining all 1,700 papers on the issue –the verdict was explicit: a unanimous recommendation for decreasing the primary standard to within the range of 60-70 ppb. Further, it stated that any standard above this range fails to satisfy the explicit stipulations of the Clean Air Act requiring an adequate margin of safety for all individuals, including sensitive populations.

Should we listen to Honeycutt, speaking for a notoriously politicized agency, or should we rely on the nation’s top experts who have spent their professional lives studying the subject?

Honeycutt also suggested Texans simply won’t stand for the control measures necessary to meet the lower ozone standard. [My favorite: We won’t be able to idle our car engines at the drive-thru while waiting for our Big Mac and fries.] 

The truth is that TCEQ isn’t serious about making ANY real effort to reduce ozone. In the latest state implementation plan (SIP) it submitted to EPA to demonstrate attainment with the 1997 ozone standard, the only control measures that TCEQ suggested were a paper reduction in the industry trading credits for some ozone precursors, and some small adjustments in emissions from the printing industry. [According to TCEQ’s own analysis, neither of these measures will make even a dent in reducing ozone concentrations.]

If TCEQ was really serious about protecting Texans’ health, there are plenty of opportunities out there to reduce ozone concentrations. For instance:

  • TCEQ could stop issuing air quality permits that fail to consider emissions of ozone precursors from newly proposed facilities. For example, a recent ruling on the White Stallion coal/pet coke permit in Matagorda county disregards ozone modeling data that demonstrates that the new facility will contribute to ozone concentrations in Houston.
  • TCEQ could enforce more penalties when facilities violate their air permits. Currently, TCEQ enforces only about 50 percent of the unplanned emission events from stationary sources across the state. These emission events release pollutants that generate large plumes of high ozone in our region.
  • TCEQ could operate more meaningful trading schemes for the pre-cursors that result in ozone formation. The market for nitrogen oxide credits, for instance, is so over allocated that no one is even trading credits.
  • TCEQ could encourage mass transit to help get cars off the roads, or could support legislation that would increase fuel efficiency standards. 

Fortunately for Houstonians, some elected officials testified in support of following the real science used to develop the new health-protective ozone standard. Newly elected Houston Mayor Annise Parker was realistic: “There is no doubt it would be a significant challenge for Houston to meet the lower standard, so the amount of lead time and our ability to achieve regional coordination is significant to us, but we do want to be on the record in supporting a goal that is protective of our citizens and is based on real science.”

How does Texas meet ANY new ozone standard as long as we have a state environmental agency determined to stall or block the measures necessary to attain them?

Will we get cleaner air in Texas? Yes, eventually – but in spite of TCEQ’s efforts, not because of them.

*** All Texans are invited to comment on strengthening the ozone standard. Go to http://www.regulations.gov [Note: You must include the Docket ID:  No. EPA–HQ–OAR–2005–0172 ]

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