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Group seeks new clean air plan

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

ARLINGTON — A government watchdog group threw down the gauntlet Monday in favor of a new plan to clean up the air in Denton County and throughout North Texas: replace planners from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with those at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, of Austin-based Public Citizen, urged the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee to use the authority in the federal Clean Air Act to make the change. TCEQ, which enforces the state’s environmental rules to protect air, has stockpiled more than $800 million to pay for cleanup projects that can help but isn’t spending it.

“After years of failure, we need a way to do this better,” Smith said.

Last fall, TCEQ unveiled a photo-chemical model predicting that North Texas air will be improved by 2018. It repeatedly has said no new control measures on industry are needed, insisting that local air quality will meet federal standards by that time.

State officials repeated their claim Monday that hot, dry summers are to blame for North Texas ozone, particularly days when the winds are slower and the air stagnant. Long-term ozone exposure has been linked to an increased risk of premature death from respiratory problems and heart disease. Ground-level ozone is made when man-made or naturally occurring pollutants combine in sunlight.

State planners said that North Texans trading in old cars for new, cleaner cars and new gasoline standards should be enough to drastically improve air quality over the next three years. They offered no plan to curtail emissions from Ellis County cement plants that have been identified as a major source of pollution.

Carrie Paige of the EPA told local officials Monday that the federal agency expects a small improvement in air quality in 2017, when the new gasoline standards take effect. The EPA is still revising the model that will help planners predict how the cleaner gasoline will affect local air quality. That work is expected to be done this summer, she said.

However, the full benefit of cleaner gasoline won’t be seen until about 2030, Paige said.

State planners had predicted that ozone averages would drop substantially between 2010 and 2013, but progress essentially has stalled for the past five years. Nationwide, only Southern California, Houston and Baltimore have logged worse ozone averages than the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the past three years.

North Texas has not been able to meet the federal clean air standard since it was implemented in 1997. It took about 10 years for ozone averages at Denton Enterprise Airport to drop from about 97 parts per billion to 87 ppb. State planners had projected another 10-ppb drop between 2010 and 2013, but that did not happen. Instead, progress stalled.

This year, the state also must include Wise County in its plan to clean up North Texas air — the first time it has been included with the nine other, mostly urban, counties in the so-called non-attainment region.

State planners have yet to install an ozone monitor in Wise County.

The Sierra Club recently sued the EPA for failing to categorize the region’s non-attainment as “serious.” The Clean Air Act contains enforcement measures with economic implications beyond fines. Sanctions could include the withholding of federal highway funding and could affect the state’s ability to recruit businesses to relocate here.

Neil Carman, of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, outlined a number of projects for the committee that could be funded if TCEQ released more cleanup money.

Jim Schermbeck, of Downwinders at Risk, a regional advocacy group, proposed two rules: requiring new emissions controls on cement kilns in Ellis County and requiring oil and gas operators to use only electric compressors.

Schermbeck told the committee that state planners had hidden the tally of pollution from oil and gas operators across several categories of emissions. He criticized them for failing to identify energy industry operators as among the biggest polluters, second only to cars and trucks.

Committee member Rita Beving said that, if that were true, she wanted to know why state officials would have tallied emissions from oil and gas operators that way.

“We need to have transparency in that,” Beving said.

TCEQ officials had no answer at Monday’s meeting. They said they would relay the concern to Austin administrators and return with more information at the next meeting.

The committee is expected to meet again in July.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.