Texas Clean Air Matters

2012 Texas Air Quality: A Year In Review

As we come to the end of another year, we reflect on all that has happened in the world of Texas air quality. This year has brought new challenges and reminded us of how much remains to be done in the quest for healthier air across the state. Our work is critical to the millions of those who are especially vulnerable to the harms of air pollution.

I’d like to thank my fellow bloggers for another outstanding year in helping to highlight the air quality issues of 2012 and for the continued support of all of our readers.  We look forward to bringing you more news and views in 2013. Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released updated standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), often referred to as “soot” (although it actually comprises a broader array of fine particles). Fine particulate pollution in the air we breathe — some of it directly emitted from cars and trucks, some of it resulting from factories and electric power plants hundreds of miles upwind – can lodge in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and pulmonary disease, especially in children and seniors. EDF praised the move, which will help secure healthy air for millions of Americans, including those in Houston where existing soot levels already exceed the new limits.

The State of Texas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) once again fight against clean air rules that will save Texans’ lives. This time, it was the first-ever standards limiting the amount of mercury and other toxics power plants could emit. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) will ensure that 90 percent of the mercury content in coal burned by power plants is not released into our air. TCEQ, the Texas attorney general, and others challenged the standards in court, saying that the toxic pollutants covered by the mercury standards do not “pose public health hazards.” The reality is that power plants in the U.S. are a major source of many toxics such as mercury, arsenic, chromium, acid gas, and nickel. A report EDF released last year demonstrated that Texas had an oversized share of the top mercury emitting coal plants in the U.S. in 2009. We called on TCEQ and the state of Texas to stand up to harmful pollution instead of standing in the way of public health protections.

Clean school bus programs in Texas made significant progress toward improving air quality on our state’s school buses, though much work remains to be done according to an EDF analysis: “Review of Texas’ Clean School Bus Programs: How Far Have We Come and What Is Still Left to Do?” The report highlighted the efforts of state and regional programs in administering clean bus programs, and detailed the progress made with retrofits and replacements. With momentum from successes to date, the EDF report recommended that communities, ISDs, and government officials carry on the clean school bus momentum by continuing to seek funding for these types of projects; completing existing clean school bus projects; and investing in these projects through budget and legislative funding allocations. Again, work remains to be done to protect the health of Texas children and improve the air quality in and around school buses – until all of Texas’ oldest buses are either replaced or retrofitted.

Since 2009, the Drayage Loan Program (DLP) has worked to replace older, more polluting trucks in the Houston area with newer, cleaner trucks by providing critical funding and support to local independent owner operators and drayage fleets. The innovative program, administered by the Houston-Galveston Area Council and supported by the Port of Houston Authority, Environmental Defense Fund, and numerous drayage companies and truck dealerships, combines low-interest loans and substantial grants to fund the fleet turnover. The effort led to the successful replacement of 138 drayage trucks, engaged numerous drivers and carriers, and spent nearly the entire original EPA SmartWay grant. At full implementation, the program is expected to eliminate 1,638 tons of nitrogen oxide, 26.7 tons of particulate matter, and 3,636 tons of carbon dioxide. This represented an important step toward reducing air pollution in the Houston area.

With around 45,000 shale gas wells operating in the United States – triple the number in 2005 – people are rightfully concerned about the extent of the shale boom’s potential damage to the environment. The issue became the focal point of discussion during “Can Natural Gas Be Sustainable?,” a five-person panel presentation at the second annual SXSW Eco conference in Austin. As part of the panel, we discussed how stronger standards and employing best practices could minimize impacts of increased natural gas production in the wake of growing public concern about the health and environmental impacts of drilling. EDF continues to address the key problem areas associated with natural gas development: exposure to toxic chemicals and waste products; faulty well construction and design; climate impacts from methane leakage; local and regional air pollution; and land use and community impacts.

Clean air protections were threatened with a U.S. Court of Appeals decision against EPA’s cross-state air pollution rule (CSAPR). The rule estimated to reduce power plant emissions across state boundaries, saving up to 34,000 lives each year, preventing 15,000 heart attacks and 400,000 asthma attacks, and providing $120 to $280 billion in annual health benefits for the nation. Issued under the “Good Neighbor” protections of the Clean Air Act, CSAPR would have reduced power plant sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent and oxides of nitrogen by 54 percent from 2005 levels across 27 eastern states and the District of Columbia. The ruling changed little about the facts on the ground in Texas. That is, cross-state air pollution from Texas will still be regulated under the – albeit somewhat weaker – Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) adopted in 2005 during the Bush administration. Texas power plants must therefore comply with both the first phase of the CAIR that took effect in 2010 and the second-phase reductions that are required in 2015.

In a much-anticipated report on the management of the Port of Houston Authority (PHA), the Sunset Commission, as directed by the Texas legislature, identified several opportunities to improve aspects of port management, including accountability and stakeholder trust. The 95-page report includes a series of recommendations for improvement in a number of basic management and fiduciary areas at the port. While the report reaffirmed the Authority’s ongoing “responsibility as a government agency,” it also highlighted a pervasive “lack of accountability.” Understanding that the port is a unique institution, PHA is criticized in the report for not following a number of best practices in either the private or public sector. As EDF continues to work in partnership with PHA to reduce emissions from oceangoing vessels, trains, cargo handling equipment, and port trucks and improve Houston air quality, we were encouraged by this report’s findings and recommendations. These reforms will also make PHA stronger and better equipped to handle the inevitable diverse pressures over the next several years.

The potential health impacts to workers who daily toil in and around the hundreds of drilling sites were highlighted in a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Hazard Alert, identifying exposure to airborne silica as a health hazard to workers conducting hydraulic fracturing operations during recent field studies. NIOSH is working to identify other potential health risks at drilling sites, acknowledging that there is a real lack of information on occupational dust and chemical exposures in this industry. However, silica is just one of several chemicals used during the hydraulic fracturing process that can pose hazards at well sites, according to State Impact.

Thanks to a federal appeals court decision, EPA’s health-based air quality standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2) will stand firm. These National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for SO2 will improve health protections, especially for children, the elderly and individuals with asthma. EDF Attorney Peter Zalzal praised the decision saying it “strongly affirms that EPA’s clean air protections addressing dangerous sulfur dioxide are firmly grounded in science and the law.”

The annual Texas smog season – April through October – appeared in full swing this year with numerous counties around the state exceeding health-based ozone concentrations many times since March. Ozone-forming pollution is emitted by cars, refineries and various industrial plants.  As more Texans began to see shale gas drilling rigs pop up around them, many asked the question: Could emissions from natural gas and oil operations significantly contribute to ground-level ozone? The answer was an unequivocal yes.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a unanimous opinion affirming EPA’s protective carbon pollution standards issued under the Clean Air Act.  The Court upheld EPA’s science-based finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare and the Clean Car Standards. The court also dismissed petitions challenging the requirement for large industrial sources to install modern cost-effective solutions to address greenhouse gases and EPA’s common sense approach to inoculate small sources. Today’s ruling underscored what we have long known — that EPA’s climate protections are firmly grounded in science and law and will help secure a healthier, more prosperous future for all Americans.

Though the cancer risks from exposure to diesel emissions have been known for many years, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), officially announced that diesel emissions were carcinogenic to humans. The agency cited the robust body of scientific literature on the issue and stated that diesel emissions were associated with lung cancer and bladder cancer. WHO estimates that cancer kills 7.6 million people worldwide, and is the leading cause of death globally in 2008. Of all cancers, lung cancer is the most lethal, and accounted for 18 percent of all cancer deaths, the agency said.

EPA released a new online tool which provides data about pollution emissions for the country’s largest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases. Together, these industry sources are responsible for billions of tons of climate disrupting pollution. This will be the first time that this data is publicly available and will inform Americans about the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in their communities. EDF attorney Peter Zalzal summed up our enthusiasm for this new tool: “Americans have a right to know about the pollution in their air. This greenhouse gas emissions data promotes transparency and provides a strong foundation for Americans to work together in deploying smart climate policies.”

Also posted in Air Pollution, Clean Air Act, Clean school buses, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston, Natural gas, Ports, TCEQ / Comments are closed

Houston Exceeds Health Standards For Particulate Matter: More Work Ahead

Texans can breathe a bit easier now.

The Environmental Protection Agency today released updated standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), often referred to as “soot” (although it actually comprises a broader array of fine particles).  Fine particulate pollution in the air we breathe — some of it directly emitted from cars and trucks, some of it resulting from factories and electric power plants hundreds of miles upwind – can lodge in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and pulmonary disease, especially in children and seniors.

EDF praised the move, which will help secure healthy air for millions of Americans, including those in Houston where existing soot levels already exceed the new limits.

The Houston Chronicle writes that the new standards could “require cleaner operations along the Ship Channel” and slow expansion for some industrial operations.

The new annual standard will be 12 micrograms per cubic matter, helping to protect those especially vulnerable to air pollution, including the one in 11 U.S. children with asthma. Soot is one of the deadliest types of air pollution. It can cause heart attacks, asthma attacks, and even premature death. Recent studies have found a possible association with autism as well.

While the new standard was released today, Houston will have some time to implement pollution control measures in advance of a non-attainment designation, which, if to happen, would likely be in late 2014.

Thus, the region has an opportunity to take action now. EDF is working to reduce emissions for areas near the Port of Houston, where particulate matter concentrations are the highest in the region. Recommendations that we’ve made to the port include paving of industrial park east and use of shorepower for ships that call on the port, especially the new cruise lines that plan to call on the port. We’ve also called upon the port to establish more rigorous pollution controls across all sectors of operations as part of their Clean Air Strategy Plan. Stay tuned for more updates on our efforts to work with the port and regional stakeholders to reduce harmful fine particles.

Other leading health and environmental groups issued strong support of the new standards today:

  • A letter signed by over 650 health and medical professionals stated: Fine particulate air pollution is cutting short the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. Studies have shown fine particulate air pollution is shortening lives by up to six months… Numerous, long-term multi-city studies have shown clear evidence of premature death, cardiovascular and respiratory harm as well as reproductive and developmental harm at contemporary concentrations far below the level of the current standard. Infants, children and teenagers are especially sensitive, as are the elderly, and people with cardiovascular disease, lung disease, or diabetes. The new EPA standards should be set at levels that will protect these sensitive people with an adequate margin of safety, as required by the Clean Air Act.
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: It is encouraging to see the agency following the Clean Air Act, especially in the face of strong industry pressure to ignore science again. The law is clear: the Clean Air Act requires air pollution standards to be based solely on the best available science regarding what is protective of health. Other factors, such as costs, can be considered when the standards are implemented. But it is science that should determine what level of pollution is safe for humans.
  • American Lung Association: We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe. Particle pollution causes premature deaths and illness, threatening the millions of Americans who breathe high levels of it,” explained Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. “By setting a more protective standard, the EPA is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant. Reducing particle pollution will prevent heart attacks and asthma attacks, and will keep children out of the emergency room and hospitals. It will save lives.”
  • Natural Resources Defense Council: From President Frances Beinecke: The Clean Air Act grants Americans the right to clean air. The updated soot standards help deliver that. Now the administration should build on this success and issue carbon limits. Together, these safeguards would protect the health and well-being of millions of Americans.
  • Dr. Christopher Lillis, doctor of internal medicine and board member of Doctors for America: As a health professional, I commend the Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing an important rule that will result in innumerable benefits to public health. I have seen countless patients with emphysema and asthma whose health conditions have worsened due to soot pollution in our atmosphere. Reducing soot pollution also reduces tens of thousands of heart attacks. Today’s announcement is a breath of fresh air for doctors, asthma patients, and their loved ones.
  • Sierra Club: From Executive Director Michael Brune: The Sierra Club applauds the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing these life-saving clean air standards to protect Americans from life-threatening air pollution. Pollution kills – and it also costs Americans billions of dollars each year.  The EPA’s soot safeguards will keep dangerous metals and chemicals out of the air we breathe to save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston / Read 3 Responses

Time Is Running Out To Set Stronger Limits On Soot Pollution

Credit: Mom’s Clean Air Force

This blog post was written by Molly Rauch, and it originally appeared on the Mom’s Clean Air Force blog.

On December 14, the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release a final standard for allowable levels of soot in ambient outdoor air. Moms Clean Air Force supporters have been speaking up since the proposed standard was released for public comment back in June, urging the agency to finalize a strong standard that will adequately protect children from the microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs and cause a myriad of health problems. These particles originate where fossil fuels are burned, such as in cars, trucks, and power plants.

I’ve written before about some of the ways soot affects children. But as we near December 14, I feel compelled to add even more reasons for you to help us keep the pressure on EPA.

  • Soot exposure specifically harms babies, by causing premature birth and low birth weight. Fetuses exposed to more soot are born smaller and earlier compared to fetuses exposed to less. The evidence for these adverse reproductive health effects is strong and growing stronger. A 2011 systematic review of the scientific literature examined 41 published studies on the topic and found that PM2.5 exposure was consistently associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, and small-for-gestational-age births. So, soot gets inside pregnant women’s bodies and harms our babies before they are even born. No consumer gizmo can solve this problem; no high tech HEPA-filter vacuum will fix this; no special mask to wear while behind the wheel will take this away. This is a job for big government, in the best sense of the term. EPA needs to take strong action against these invisible particles harming our future.
  • Lest you think that such effects on newborn babies don’t sound like a big deal, premature birth and low birth weight are linked to some serious health consequences. Low birth weight is a potent predictor of infant mortality as well as subsequent illnesses in infancy and childhood, such as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, lung disease, asthma, and cognitive development. Similarly, preterm birth is associated with infant mortality and health problems in childhood and adulthood. But the harm doesn’t stop in childhood. A growing body of evidence suggests that low birth weight and preterm birth predict several important aspects of health well beyond childhoodFor example, low birth weight is associated with heart disease, heart attacks, and Type 2 diabetes among adults. It is unknown whether the low birth weight caused by soot is the same low birth weight that increases diabetes risk. But in a country like ours, where 12% of all live births are preterm and 8% of babies are low birth weight, and where these adverse birth outcomes disproportionately affect poor and non-white babies, I don’t need to wait for definitive scientific proof. Let’s take reasonable measures to continue to reduce soot exposure. We know it will improve the health of our population right now. And it just might have the added benefit of protecting infants from future chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Win-win, right?
  • Soot exposure from traffic pollution is hardest on poor and minority communities. Here’s why: Traffic emissions are one of the largest sources of soot pollution in cities, and the concentration of traffic pollutants is highest near roadways. Heavily trafficked roads are basically corridors of pollution in many cities, and these are the same areas where you’ll find higher density of residences, schools, stores, and workplaces. (According to EPA, more than 45 million Americans live within 300 feet of a highway.) African Americans and low-income neighborhoods are closer to major roadways, and so they bear the brunt of this pollution. Can you say “vicious cycle”? The new soot standard will require cities to measure soot pollution near roads. There won’t be a simple fix for this kind of injustice, but taking some measurements to get a handle on the problem is a key first step. Bravo to EPA for including near-road monitors in the draft soot standard. Let’s make sure we’ll be reading about near-road monitors on December 14, when we see the final standard.
  • Limiting soot pollution helps avert climate chaos, ensuring a healthier future for our children, our children’s children, and beyond. Black carbon, the main component of soot, is a significant climate forcer. This means that it absorbs sunlight, increasing the heat-trapping qualities of our atmosphere and raising temperatures. An important quality of black carbon is its short lifespan. It stays in the atmosphere for 1-4 weeks as opposed to centuries, as is the case with carbon dioxide. This means that reductions in emissions of black carbon would have immediate climate benefits. Less soot means less asthma and stroke and heart disease – but it also means less black carbon, and therefore less climate change, which is no small threat to our health. Air pollution and climate chaos go hand in hand. Improving one helps the other.
Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, GHGs / Comments are closed

The Costs Of Particulate Matter To American Health

This blog post was written by Dr. Bonnie New, former Director of Health Professionals for Clean Air.

Physicians treating patients with respiratory symptoms look for underlying causes or aggravators, and that includes exposure to air pollution.

If that pollution involves particulate matter – also known as soot – their concerns intensify, because of its well-known negative health impacts.

Many studies demonstrate associations between short- and long-term exposures to fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) and cardiopulmonary disease and mortality.

PM2.5 exposure is also associated with:

  • endocrine and reproductive dysfunction, including pre-term and low birth-weight babies;
  • increases in lung cancer;
  • increases in the development of vascular disease; and
  • increases in diabetes mortality.

In addition to aggravating existing asthma and other lung diseases, PM2.5 has been linked to retarded lung growth and reduced lung function in children, and even with de novo (newly occurring) development of respiratory problems in infants and children. Research also shows that reductions in PM2.5 are associated with reductions in adverse health effects and improved life expectancy.

It’s important to state here that currently, there is no identified level of PM2.5 that is known to not make people sick.

The groups most susceptible to adverse health effects from PM2.5 are infants, children, teens, the elderly, and those with existing lung and cardiovascular problems. Taken together, this represents almost half of the U.S. population.

Impacts to the Economy

When we see the large impacts of pollution on health, it’s impossible not to notice the financial impacts as well.

The economic impact of preventable illness and death related to soot pollution in the U.S. is staggering, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The functional impact on the lives of those affected and their families is also dramatic.

As doctors, we deal with not only the challenges of diagnosis and treatment, but with the sadness, frustration and pain of people who can not live normal lives and children who can not enjoy just being kids.

It raises anger in physicians to hear from those opposing health-based air quality regulations on the basis that such regulations would be “too costly”. It’s not like the costs are avoided if regulations are not put into place. The costs are simply shifted to our patients, and to the health care system. The costs are paid for in lives impaired and lives lost, in kids who can’t run and play, in increasing hospitalizations and people missing work and school because they’re sick.

Shifting costs like this from polluters to the general public makes for healthy business profits, but sick and unhappy people. As patient advocates, doctors have good reason to be angry. The public, those current and future patients and families, do too.

Also posted in Air Pollution / Read 1 Response

Proposed Soot Standards Long Overdue

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed health-based air quality standards for microscopic particulate pollution, one of the deadliest and most dangerous forms of air pollution. Inhalation of these tiny particles results in severe health impacts, including premature mortality, aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, changes in lung function and increased respiratory symptoms. If finalized, these proposed health protections will provide a long-term framework for securing cost-effective emission reductions in these health-harming pollutants from the largest source sectors.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) comes from highway dust, diesel exhaust, power plant emissions, wood burning and other air pollution sources, and consists of dirt, soot, aerosols, metals, acids and other microscopic particles.

EPA proposes reducing the current annual PM2.5 limits of 15 micrograms per cubic meter to levels within a range of 13 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

As I told the Houston Chronicle, this proposal is a “huge deal” and long overdue. The data on PM2.5 is even more compelling than the data for ozone. Simply stated, it’s one of the worst air pollutants endangering public health.

Unfortunately, it took court action to prompt release of these proposed standards. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review its particle pollution standards every five years to determine whether revisions are necessary, demanding that the agency issue standards protecting public health “with an adequate margin of safety.” However, because the EPA did not meet its five-year legal deadline for standards review, a federal court ordered the agency to sign the proposed particle pollution standards by June 14, 2012.

EDF has worked with the American Lung Association, Earthjustice, and National Parks Conservation Association to strongly advocate for last week’s proposed action. In 2006, EPA rejected the recommendations of its own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee on the level of protection necessary to safeguard Americans from particulate pollution in accordance with science and the law. The resulting standards were successfully challenged in the federal court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit by the American Lung Association, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Parks Conservation Association. The court instructed EPA to take corrective action in light of the extensive scientific evidence of human health harms.|

Now that the proposed PM2.5 standards have been announced, EPA will accept public comment for 63 days after the standards are published in the Federal Register. EPA will hold two public hearings (Sacramento, CA and Philadelphia, PA) in July with issuance of the final standards by December 14 this year.

The science is clear and the health implications clearer. If finalized, the new standards will prevent 35,700 premature deaths, 2,350 heart attacks, 23,290 visits to the hospital and emergency room, 1.4 million cases of aggravate asthma and 2.7 million days of missed work or school due to air pollution-caused ailments.

Although long overdue, we look forward to implementation of the final PM2.5 standards, strengthening public health, enabling us all to breathe just a bit more deeply.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Clean Air Act, Environmental Protection Agency, MATS / Tagged | Read 2 Responses

Cleaning Texas’ Air Does Not Mean Catastrophe

Governor Perry, TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw and others were quick to assert that EPA’s new Cross-State Air Pollution rule would result in a catastrophe for Texas.  They talked about power outages and lost jobs.  They overlooked the saved lives and billions of dollars in health savings that the rule would bring not only for Texas but the rest of the nation. 

A new report from Bernstein Research shows that Governor Perry and Chairman Shaw are acting less like a public officials and more like Chicken Little.  The report shows that coal operations could continue in Texas if plants would run the scrubbers they have already installed. 

Yes, despite what you have heard, massive investments in new technology are not required.  Coal-fired power plants in Texas could simply use the technology they already have.

According to the report, companies like NRG Energy and American Electric Power (AEP) could even stand to make money in Texas, selling off SO2 allowances. 

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will save lives and billions of dollars.  Utilities have had plenty of time to prepare for this. It’s time to stop playing political games with people’s health and safety and move forward.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Ozone, TCEQ / Comments are closed