EPA Rejects Texas’ BS and Submits Its Own Air Plan for Parks. Will It Do the Same For People?

by jim on December 16, 2015

2183619BS-meter2As you might have already heard, last week the EPA announced it was rejecting Texas' proposed rapid-response,140-year plan for restoring air quality and visibility in National Parks affected by pollution from the state's largest industrial facilities, primarily coal-fired power plants, aka, "the haze rule."

Instead, the EPA decided to implement its own, slightly more decisive plan for action. Whereas the state concluded it needed no new controls on any coal plants, the EPA is requiring modern Sulfur Dioxide (SOx) scrubbers on 14 different boilers at nine power plant sites across the state it estimates will remove 230,000 tons of the pollutant annually.  That's 60% of the state's total SOX pollution, and 7% of the nation's.

These scrubbers not only capture SOx on behalf of more beautiful vistas in Big Bend, they also do a good job of preventing lots of Particulate Matter pollution from reaching the lungs of people that live in between the coal plants and parks. Although computer modeling was used by EPA to determine the effectiveness of the scrubbers it's requiring, it focused on results inside the parks. Getting results for metro areas like DFW involves a lot of data mining nobody has done, but there's no question that if reductions in air pollution are helping Oklahoma and West Texas parks, they're also helping out the air in North Texas. Just one look at the modeling maps produced by our recent UNT study of DFW ozone shows the immense impacts of these plants on DFW air quality.

For residents of DFW, the reductions in pollution are overdue and welcome news (the process leading up to this rule can be traced all the way back to 1977), and it certainly makes it even less likely that the big bad old TXU plants (Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake) can escape their obsolescence after bankruptcy proceedings.

But the way the EPA determined to go it alone in this case may be much more important to DFW's own air quality in the long run as the actual reductions it implements. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but EPA called BS on the way Texas was obscuring the data needed to write a good haze rule plan. This M.O. sounds awfully familiar to citizens watching the way the State has drafted its anti-smog plan for DFW, now officially approved by the TCEQ Commissioners and on its way to a public hearing in Arlington on Thursday, January 21st (6 pm, HQ of North Central Texas Council of Governments, 616 Six Flags Road).

And if EPA is willing to stand-up to Texas over air quality in parks, shouldn't it take at least as strong a stand on behalf of seven million souls in DFW?

About the same time EPA was announcing a federal takeover of the haze rule plan, Downwinders released its new video appealing for help from the EPA to reject the State's do-nothing smog plan for DFW. A big part of our case is its reliance on faulty analysis and downplaying or obscuring evidence that contradicts the state's ideological position that no new pollution controls for smog are needed in a region in its third decade of continual violation of the Clean Air Act and after a summer where smog averages increased…twice.

Which makes the language EPA uses to justify this takeover of the haze rule plan all the more relevant, and gives residents some hope should the Agency apply the same logic to the State's pathetic response to DFW's chronic smog problem.

EPA accuses Texas of hiding the most effective control strategies from EPA and Oklahoma (where the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is affected by Texas-based pollution seven times as much as Oklahoma-based SOx) by flooding its emissions inventory data with both large and small sources of SOx from across the state, washing out the impact of the larger coal plants.

"During the interstate consultation required by the Regional Haze Rule, Oklahoma and Texas discussed the significant contribution of sources in Texas to visibility impairment at the Wichita Mountains, but Texas concluded that no additional controls were warranted for its sources during the first planning period to ensure reasonable progress at the Wichita Mountains, or at its own Class I areas, the Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.

In reaching this conclusion, Texas relied on an analysis that obscured the benefits of potentially cost-effective controls on those sources or groups of sources with the largest visibility impacts in these Class I areas by inclusion of those controls with little visibility benefit, but which served to increase the total cost figures.

This flawed analysis deprived Oklahoma of the information it needed to properly assess the reasonableness of controls on Texas sources during the consultation process and prevented Texas from properly assessing the reasonableness of controls to remedy visibility at Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains.

A few pages later EPA reiterates the charge,

Texas’ analysis was deficient and not approvable because the large control set it selected was not appropriately refined, targeted, or focused on those sources having the most significant and potentially cost-effective visibility benefits. We conclude this control set included controls on sources that would increase total cost figures, but would achieve very little visibility benefit…because Texas only estimated the visibility benefit of all the controls together, it was not able to assess the potential benefit of controlling those sources with the greatest visibility impacts, and potentially cost-effective controls. Therefore, the effects of those controls with the greatest visibility benefits were obscured by the inclusion of those controls with little visibility benefit. This only served to increase the total cost figure, making Texas’ potential control set seem less attractive.

In analyzing whether additional controls should be required for some of its sources under the long-term strategy provisions of the Regional Haze Rule, Texas relied on the same flawed analysis discussed above that it relied on to evaluate additional controls under the reasonable progress provisions to address visibility impairment at Texas’ own Class I areas. Texas’ analytical approach obscured the contributions of individual sources that Texas’ own analysis indicated could be cost-effectively controlled.

This deprived Oklahoma of the information it needed to properly assess whether there were reasonable controls for Texas sources and to properly establish reasonable progress goals for the Wichita Mountains that included the resulting emission reductions. 

That's just about as plain an outline of a state government conspiracy to avoid complying with the Clean Air Act as the EPA puts in print. And it sets the stage to examine the State's DFW air plan using the same fine-toothed comb for rooting-out analytical crap meant to obscure inconvenient facts on the ground.

For example, the State's conclusion that no new controls for smog are warranted is based on an analysis of what's "reasonably available" that's every bit as flawed as anything dreamed up by Austin for dodging its responsibilities to national parks. It ignores modern controls already operating on cement kilns, gas compressors, and coal plants – to the point of not even mentioning the permitting of these controls by the TCEQ itself.

Moreover, hard as it is to believe, the state's conclusion on smog controls is based on no modeling of the impact of those controls on air quality. That was left up to Downwinders and its UNT study, using the state's own computer modeling. What that effort provided was nothing less than a road map for how to get the most cost-effective cuts in smog by reducing pollution from those kilns, coal plants, and compressors. This is information the state could have gotten if it wanted it, but it didn't want it because it disputed the ideological position that no new pollution controls for industry are justified. It knew if it looked, it would have to release the results. So it just didn't look.

Finally, the state is still claiming that its plan will get DFW "close enough," to the 75 ppb standard, clocking-in at 77.8 ppb. So the plan doesn't even accomplish its goal. That makes it completely indistinguishable from the last five state air plans for DFW. What the State is counting on is EPA giving them credit for a wish list collection of unquantifiable stuff under the regulatory category of "Weight of Evidence." This is exactly the same strategy used in past plans. Ride new changes in federal law as far as you can and convince the EPA that "trends" are in your favor to make up any slack.

Only this time, "trends" may be working against the State. The summer of 2015 saw an increase in regional smog averages, indicating that perhaps its do-nothing approach isn't working. If you combine this information with the fact that smog levels also rose during the last do-noting plan from 2011, you have some "trends" crying out for an EPA takeover. 

Since the TCEQ has approved its DFW air plan for submittal to EPA, we won't have to wait long to find out what the Agency's response will be. Public comments are due by January 29th. Let's hope EPA's review of an air plan for people's health in the nation's fourth largest metropolitan area is as rigorous as it was for the one looking out for visitors to the Wichita Mountains. 

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