Texas counties fail Air Report while state environmental commission tries to cut back fees on polluters

The American Lung Association issued its Annual State of the Air Report this week. The report looks at levels of ozone and particle pollution found in monitoring sites across the United States in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Key National Findings:

  • More than 175 million people (around 58%) in the nation suffer from pollution levels that exceed health-based federal standards.
  • While air quality is improving in many cities, unhealthy air remains a threat to the lives and health of millions of people in the United States.
  • People who have low incomes face higher risk of harm from air pollution.

Texas Findings:

  • Houston is the 7th most ozone-polluted city in the country.
  • 21 of the 36 Texas counties studied in the report received an F for having too many high ozone days.
  • Harris County, home to almost four million people, had 77 orange ozone days (unhealthy for sensitive populations), 16 red ozone days (unhealthy for the general population), and three purple ozone days (very unhealthy for the general population).

On the same day the American Lung Association issued its air report, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) held a public meeting in Houston on the findings used to support a termination determination proposal that they are about to submit to EPA for a pollution fee collection program.

If the proposal is approved – the commission argues that the control measures in place to protect the air quality in Houston are working well enough – TCEQ will stop collecting an estimated $75-$125 million from polluters per year to improve air quality in Houston.

But, are the control measures working well enough, or should we be doing more? Let’s examine some of the evidence to determine whether there is room for improvement:

  • EPA has declared that parts of the Texas permitting program (the program through which the TCEQ issues air permits to facilities to release toxic compounds) are in violation of the Federal Clean Air Act.
  • If TCEQ believed that they could meet the 1997 ozone standard in 2009, then why did they submit modeling data to EPA indicating that they would not be able to attain the standard until 2018?
  • A new, stronger ozone standard is expected in August of this year. Depending on the final determination of the standard, Texas will likely have 23-29 counties out of attainment. EPA has proposed to lower the ozone standard between 60-70ppb, a significant strengthening from the current standard of 84 ppb. With tighter standards on the way, wouldn’t we want to take advantage of all of the tools that we have to improve air quality and increase the quality of life, as well as realize important health benefits?

Overall Evaluations:

While air quality in Texas has come a long way over the years, there is still a considerable way to go before we are breathing air that meets federal health-based standards. And if there is one important thing that TCEQ demonstrates in their termination determination, it is the fact that even as air pollution controls have been implemented over the years, it has not been at the expense of our economy. So, let’s embrace the idea that clean air and a good economy are not mutually exclusive. We can (and should) have both!

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