What’s worse than DFW air being bad? The news coverage of it being bad.

by jim on April 30, 2015

Annex - Douglas, Kirk (Ace in the Hole)_02Another year, another "F" from the American Lung Association's "State of the Air" report. This week saw the release of the annual study, which ranks air quality across the US, and has given DFW a failing grade for its dirty air every year, beginning in 1999 when the first one was published.

Since passage of the amendments to the Clean Air Act establishing national health-based standards for ozone, or smog, in 1991, North Texas has never had safe or legal air, and usually ends up in the list of ten worst bad air cities in the country. This year was no exception, when the Metromess came in at #7, relying on numbers from 2011 to 2013.

Yes the levels of smog have mercifully come down over the last 15 years. But so have the levels that are considered by public health experts to be "safe." And while other metropolitan areas of equal size have shown faster, deeper improvements in air quality, DFW has lagged behind.

But many of you already know that. What was most disappointing about the ALA report was not its conclusions concerning our air, but the coverage of those conclusions in the local media, which was almost invisible, exceeded in its inconspicuousness only by the lack of context in what little mention there was.

By our count only the Dallas Morning News and its television partner Channel 5 even had stories about the report. In the DMN, it was left up to Jack-of-all-trades reporter Robert Wilonsky to write the short blub (490 words, or less than the guest op-ed limit of 650 words imposed by the paper's editorial pages) in a blog post, while KXAS clocked in with a relatively long piece over just over 2 minutes that featured an interview with Downwinders at Risk board member Cherelle Blazer and her asthmatic son.

A decade ago, this report would have been a bigger story. Some of that missing coverage is due to bad air fatigue by local news editors – "This just in, DFW air still sucks, details at 10" – but a lot of it's due to the entire category of environmental beat reporters that no longer exists. Not that long ago, both papers had full-time environmental reporters, as did most of the network TV affiliates. Not now.

The Star-Telegram newsroom is shrinking faster than a Greenland glacier and keeps shedding reporters with an environmental portfolio at a rate of about one per year. At this point it's not even possible to name a newsroom employee to whom you could pitch an anti-pollution story. The Morning News has an environmental reporter in name, but Randy Lee Loftis has been away from the beat for years, instead doing mostly work as an editor and dropping in only for occasional pieces. Stories about earthquakes and fracking were recently covered by science reporter Anna Kuchment, while other pieces about fracking itself were written in the business section by James Osburn. Wilonsky's Wednesday's article about the ALA report was in the "Life and Arts" section of the DMN's website.

Don Wall used to be the Channel 8 environmental reporter. Channel 4 had one too. But now these stores are rotated out to those who may or may not have any background in environmental reporting at all.

That's bad news because the less familiar they are with the subject matter, the more likely a reporter is to fall for the smooth Party Line from government or industry, rather than having seen for themselves that the official explanation has big holes. Anyone who's in the news business knows that the best stories are broken and covered by those with the best sources and understanding of what they're talking about. You need to know the context, the series of dominos that's falling or will fall around this piece, as part of a longer, larger narrative. A beat reporter who's been covering the issue and knows all the players without a program.

In the case of air quality and the ALA report, there's simply no one around to remind the public that this report covers the exact years the last "clean air plan" submitted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was supposed to give us historical low levels of smog – despite not requiring any new controls on any sources of air pollution.  Instead, smog got worse, the first time a plan has actually produced higher levels of ozone at its conclusion than when it began.

And that's important in 2015 because the same state agency is once again submitting a clean air plan that does nothing but wait for the federal government to act. No new controls on the cement kilns, the coal plants , or the gas industry. As a result, EPA's own computer modeling shows DFW is predicted to be only one of four areas in the country still out of compliance with the current smog standard in 2018.

As Paul Harvey used to say, that's the rest of the story – the really important part. The part that keeps the annual "DFW has bad air" piece from being just another update from an asthmatic child about a problem that seemingly has no solution and no end. There wasn't one mention of the do-nothing TCEQ plan(s), or the important industrial sources of pollution that keep getting a pass in either the DMN or Channel 5 pieces. Instead, smog is treated apolitically, as if it was an inevitable force of nature. 

In fact, there's a reason why we keep getting F's in these reports. There's a reason why DFW air got worse between 2011 and 2013. It's because the State of Texas, with co-facilitation from EPA, wasn't doing anything to actively promote cleaner air. And now it's doing the same thing again. 

Smog doesn't happen just because we have really hot days. It happens because there's an unresponsive system in place. It happens because of the politics of smog. Politics that people can change. That's a story that an environmental beat reporter who had covered the last five years of local air quality planning could tell. But instead you have to read it in a small non-profit's blog. 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kim Feil May 1, 2015 at 3:44 pm

Today is an orange day….. if reasonable changes in the thresholds in legal verses illegal ppb's change, that what is orange today should probably actually a red alert but then again you don't have to tell the asthmatics or COPD folks that…they find out the hard way…they breathe outside air. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10206558093934004&set=gm.902526963141764&type=1&theater

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