Notice Something Missing So Far This Summer? Smog Alerts.

by jim on June 11, 2013

hanging gas mask on hookAlong with cooler weather in general and a little more rain this Spring has come some relief from really dirty air in DFW.

Last year at this time, we'd already had 6 "exceedences" of the old 1997 85 parts per billion ozone standard in May, and countless exceedences of the tougher new 75 ppb standard that is supposed to be attained by 2018. As of today, we haven't had one even one monitor reading above 85 ppb and only a handful in the 75 to 85 ppb range.

For the last two years in a row, DFW has seen a decrease in air quality, and an increase in smog. Could 2013 be the year that trend is halted?

Weather takes a lot, or even most of the credit. Cooler temperatures and more moisture are not conducive to ozone creation. But unlike during the recession, new car sales seem to be taking off the way the Rick Perry-approved engineers at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wanted them to two to three years ago. It's possible that the replacement of older dirtier vehicles with newer, cleaner ones by the thousands has finally made a difference you can't see. There's also the impact of cleaner operations at the Midlothian cement plants thanks to citizen victories over the last decade, (although the kilns are rapidly turning back into garbage burners), fewer coal burning plants downwind, and other improvements up and down the southeast to northwest axis that carries our predominant winds from Houston to here. 

On the other hand, last June was pretty quiet until the 24th, and then all hell broke loose, with ozone levels into the triple digits. 2012 turned out to be a very bad year for safe and legal air.

And there's the unknowns that nobody's really examining closely – at least not in public. How much ozone pollution is being caused by the natural gas infrastructure in the Barnett Shale that's been built over the last decade and gets bigger every week? How much is the gas industry polluting upwind of us in places like Freestone County between here and Houston? Does the continuing boomtown growth in DFW population cancel out the improvement in individual vehicle emissions?

From a regulatory point of view, no matter how good or bad this summer is, we don't get credit for it either way. Another bad year wouldn't be held against us. Likewise, no violations this entire year wouldn't buy us any more goodwill from EPA. We're in a limbo period, where everyone is just waiting around for the average readings from 2015 -2018  to accumulate and tell us what category of compliance with the new 75 ppb standard we're in. While it would certainly help the cause if the region had some forward momentum in lowering the levels of smog going into 2015, officially, it makes no difference at all – unless you're breathing air. Then, according to EPA's own scientists, anything above 65-70 ppb is damaging to human health.

Theoretically, the TCEQ is supposed to be putting together yet another "DFW clean air plan" to reach that 75ppb standard, to be implemented sometime between now and 2015. The last time it tried to reach such a regulatory goal – the 85 ppb standard – it ended up with a plan that worsened air quality here by starting way too late and basically doing nothing but watching as new cars were going to clean up the air in the middle of a recession.  (By the way, the "official" regulatory date of that failure is coming up next week even though the failure was certain last summer. Stay tuned to see if TCEQ acknowledges it in any way).

It's the summer of 2013. Any big changes that need to be in a summer of 2015 clean air plan should be being discussed and set in motion now, especially if they need 2015 state legislative approval, or lead times for industry to adapt. However, state or regional officials have yet to call a meeting of the local advisory group that's supposed to be monitoring the development of that plan. No date is set for such a meeting.

We can hope that a confluence of circumstances is making it possible to have cleaner air in DFW, but as long as Rick Perry is Governor, it's unlikely such an important public health goal will override political agendas.

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