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Up in the air

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

Data, assistance could help state meet ozone standards

ARLINGTON — Denton residents may have cleaner air to breathe by 2018, if the state’s new estimates are correct and help from regional planners and Texas physicians comes through.

Local, state and federal officials met again with members of the public in Arlington on Tuesday to discuss the latest predictions the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has for North Texas air.

The state must file a new plan to show that it can meet stricter federal standards for ozone.

The state’s five previous plans to improve North Texas air quality have not met federal standards. Ozone levels have dropped primarily because of lower emissions from cars and trucks.

Ground-level ozone forms when man-made or naturally occurring pollutants combine in sunlight. Most of North Texas’ ozone comes from traffic, but coal-fired power plants and cement plants in Central Texas also contribute to the region’s pollution.

More recently, natural gas drilling and production in the Barnett Shale, particularly the compressors that lift the gas from wells and move it down pipelines, have also contributed to the region’s ozone problem.

The state’s latest predictions show Denton’s air quality monitor will continue to have the highest ozone readings in the region, as the monitor has for the past several years.

Earlier this summer, Texas physicians took the extraordinary step of petitioning the TCEQ to revisit the rules to limit emissions from the state’s oldest coal-fired power plants. Area doctors have been concerned about the health impacts they see on “bad air” days.

This year, so far, there have been seven bad air days, where ozone climbs to a level beyond the federal standard.

People with asthma or other lung conditions have even more trouble breathing on bad air days. Long-term ozone exposure has been linked to an increased risk of premature death from respiratory problems and heart disease.

The TCEQ declined to consider the doctors’ petition, but the Texas Medical Association’s latest position statement also includes working with the Texas Legislature.

Chris Kite, who models the air quality for TCEQ, said the agency may not be able to use new, cleaner gasoline standards as part of its calculations.

In previous runs of the model, those standards showed the region coming into compliance because of the cleaner gasoline.

Instead, the agency used new traffic and Barnett Shale production data to make its latest round of predictions for 2018.

Emissions from traffic and from the Barnett are expected to drop enough that the region should still come into compliance by 2018, Kite said.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is one of only two regions nationwide that must submit a prediction model along with its latest plan to clean the air because the previous plans have failed so poorly.

With the previous plan, the TCEQ predicted that the ozone would drop significantly by 2013. However, ozone levels have not dropped in the past several years.

TCEQ officials maintained Tuesday that no new steps are needed to clean North Texas air other than to encourage businesses and residents to buy newer, cleaner vehicles. They dismissed proposed initiatives to reduce emissions from the cement plants and from Barnett Shale compressors, saying they were too costly to implement.

Chris Klaus, senior program manager of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said that agency would offer many regional initiatives, particularly from its transportation division, as part of the cleanup plan.

Because the initiatives cannot be precisely measured, they can’t be used in the model. But they could be used to show a measure of “good faith” in making the plan, Klaus said.

Texas hasn’t been able to get credit for a program that helps people pay for repairs or buy cleaner vehicles because of funding problems, according to Guy Donaldson, an air quality section chief at the Environmental Protection Agency.

With each vehicle inspection, Texas residents pay a fee that is supposed to fund clean air programs.

Currently, the Legislature has not allocated about $1 billion in that fund. Instead, the money is used to balance the state’s budget.

“We’re at the mercy of the Legislature,” said Shannon Stevenson, a program manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

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