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Denton County fails air quality exam

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Report: Average number of ozone days down but still far from hitting the mark

The American Lung Association’s annual grades for air quality are in.

Denton County gets an F.

For 13 years, the national nonprofit has analyzed complicated air-quality data reported by the states to the Environmental Protection Agency and issued its own consumer-friendly report.

For 2010 and two years prior, the latest available data, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was ranked as having the 12th worst air quality in the country for ozone. Greater Houston ranked eighth. The other 10 were in California.

Since 1996, when the American Lung Association first began its “State of the Air” report, the average number of ozone days in Denton County has dropped but remains well above the three days per year that would generate a passing grade.

Ground-level ozone, which is formed as exhaust and other pollutants react with sunlight, can aggravate asthma and cause permanent lung damage, according to the American Lung Association. Recent research also has found that particle and other air pollution increased the risk of heart attack for people breathing as little as one week of bad air.

Texas is not required to report particle pollution in Denton County, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does measure it at a non-regulatory monitor, according to spokesman Terry Clawson. In addition to ozone monitors in Denton and Pilot Point, the TCEQ installed air toxics monitors in Dish and Flower Mound in response to concerns about emissions from natural gas production facilities. Five more air toxics monitors are scheduled to be installed in Denton, Wise and Tarrant counties this summer, Clawson said, but other than at the University of Texas at Arlington, no locations for the air toxics monitors have been announced. 

The Environmental Protection Agency accepted revisions to the plan last year to clean up North Texas’ air prepared by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as required by the Clean Air Act.

Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs is chairman of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee, an advisory group of the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The committee meets with officials from TCEQ to come up with community suggestions for the region’s plan.

Any new plan likely will be required to meet tougher standards, Burroughs said, and could include Hood and Wise counties.

Currently, Denton, Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, Johnson, Ellis, Parker, Rockwall and Kaufmann counties are part of the non-attainment area, which the EPA has classified as “serious.” Natural gas development and production in Hood and Wise counties have triggered the consideration. 

Progress stalled from 2002-06. Some local advocates are concerned progress might have stalled again in 2011, when the number of ozone days rose to 2006 levels. And this year, though “ozone season” didn’t officially begin until April 1, monitors in Frisco logged high levels of ozone on March 24.

Jim Schermbeck, a member of the steering committee and Downwinders At Risk, said that he and others are concerned that emissions from natural gas production equipment are contributing to the problem. 

“The emissions could be doing things that the [computer] modelers didn’t anticipate,” Schermbeck said, citing a Colorado study that found when air that was already polluted blew over an oil and gas field, it created more smog than anticipated.

In the summer, prevailing winds often blow pollutants from the southeast into Denton County, Burroughs said.

TCEQ and the University of Texas at Austin Center for Energy and Environmental Resources continue to study that phenomenon, Clawson said.

“Our hope is that it, too, will provide useful information for the next DFW SIP [state implementation plan] revision,” Clawson wrote in an e-mail.

But that doesn’t mean people should feel helpless in the meantime, Burroughs said. There are things individuals and groups can do, particularly cutting back on ozone-making activities, such as mowing the lawn or letting the car idle, especially in the morning on ozone action days.

Steering committee leaders have talked about plans for an awareness campaign this summer, he said. There also could be a notification process, similar to Code Red, for people to opt-in.

“We usually get one day’s notice of a really bad air day,” Burroughs said. “We could send out alerts to people who want to have them and tell them to please consider multiple practices — perhaps in an e-mail with details — and that could make a difference.”

Clean air advocates, such as the American Lung Association and Downwinders at Risk, have battled with political leaders who are skittish about harming the economy with tougher regulations.

TCEQ, too, has sided with other Texas officials against federal regulators when weighing matters of the environment and the economy, according to Clawson.

“We value regulation that addresses real environmental risks while being based on sound science and compliance with state and federal statutes,” Clawson wrote.

Public opinion is less skittish, according to the American Lung Association. 

A recent nationwide, bipartisan poll found that 73 percent of voters did not think that regulators had to choose between air quality and a strong economy.

Moreover, by a majority of nearly 2-to-1, voters believed strengthening safeguards would create jobs rather than destroy them by encouraging innovation.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is