Offending Those of Us Who Care About Clean Air

Photo taken by Uwe HermannThe Texas clean air disinformation campaign is still alive and kicking as shown by Kathleen Hartnett White and Mario Loyola in their Nov. 17 Washington Examiner op ed, “EPA is offended by Texas’ successful permit rules.”

My colleagues Ilan Levin with the Environmental Integrity Project and Matthew Tejada with Air Alliance Houston agreed that such disinformation deserved some clarification to help Texans put the issue into proper perspective. Our responses to their Nov. 17 claims:

  • Despite being a world center of energy production, Texas has dramatically improved air quality. The air in Texas is getting better, but we have a long way to go. Our own state environmental agency (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) released a report earlier this year outlining areas around the state where the pollution levels for air toxics exceed the state’s OWN screening guidelines. Only four of the 13 areas around the state listed are showing any improvement. The other nine are static or getting worse. Some of these areas have been on the air pollution watch list for more than a decade. Texas also continues to be number ONE in emissions of many of the most serious pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (a precursor to ozone), carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter (PM10) and mercury from power plants.
  • Houston, long among the nation’s most polluted cities, attained the nationally applicable ozone standard last year. Yes, in 2009, Houston attained the 1997 ozone standard by the slightest of margins, thanks to an extraordinarily good ozone year in 2008. However, the Houston region will in all likelihood again fail attainment since the standard has since been revised and current ozone levels exceed it. Texas still has some of the highest ozone concentrations in the country. Twelve other ozone non-attainment counties have made larger ozone reductions than Harris County (Houston) and 68 other non-attainment counties have made more progress than Dallas County. While some improvement has been made, this comparison shows that much more needs to be done to stop rising ozone levels.
  • Last July, EPA invalidated the 16-year old Texas Flexible Permitting Program. A strategic mechanism for achieving huge emissions reductions, the flexible permits impose tight emission caps for industrial facilities, while leaving plant operators some flexibility to innovate. Yes, when sued by an industry group, EPA found that flexible permits did not meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act. Flexible permits allow industrial sources to lump hundreds of pieces of polluting equipment under a single pollution limit, or cap. Because most of the equipment is not monitored, it’s almost impossible for regulators or the public to determine whether companies are complying with their pollution caps, or in some cases, to even determine where those caps are set. Those caps are also calculated at such unreasonably high levels that they fail to serve as a real limit on pollution, and certainly don’t reflect the best Texas industry can do.
  • EPA’s action jeopardizes the planned construction of a new $6.5 billion Motiva refinery in Port Arthur and Total’s planned $3 billion refinery expansion. Port Arthur has been on the TCEQ’s Air Pollution Watch List for almost a decade (see Table 1 on page 5) and is not showing any improvement. How in good conscience can Ms. White justify mentioning Motiva when data from the very agency she used to chair indicate increased health risks from air pollution to those who live there? TCEQ’s primary mission is to protect human health. The state of Texas doesn’t save any money when Texans are paying the ultimate price: their health. Additionally, higher medical and insurance costs stemming from poor air quality are significant factors by companies looking to invest in different locations. Consider that Toyota skipped Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in favor of San Antonio when it sought a location for a new Texas facility. Why? Better air quality.

We believe that Texas can have clean air AND a robust economy. Let’s accept that, roll up our sleeves and get to work instead of fighting the national agency simply trying to do its job protecting us.

– Elena Craft, Ilan Levin and Matthew Tejada

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One Comment

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