Dallas Staff Attempts COG Coup on Air Monitoring Network

by jim on April 1, 2019

After being rebuffed by its own city council on the idea, Dallas Staff Goes to NCTCOG to promote autocratic regional air monitoring network

You may remember that way back last September members of the Dallas City Council Quality of Life Committee approved a independent regional air network as laid out in a 20 minute presentation by the University of Texas at Dallas’s Dr. David Lary and Downwinders’s Director Jim Schermbeck. They approved it 7-0 with even Rickey Callahan voting for it.

Usually when things get voted that favorably out of a Committee, they head straight to the full Council and get approved. But moments after the Committee vote City Staff demanded it not be sent to the full Council until December.

Everyone who knew the backstory of how much the Dallas Office of Environmental Quality and (Rockefeller) Sustainability hated the idea of such a network knew what was really going on. And sure enough, here it is April and there’s still no movement on the one regional network idea officially endorsed by a City Council Committee.

But guess what? Staff isn’t just standing still. No, they’re on the move. They’re not only going out of their way to shoot down the air monitoring network approved by members of their own the city council; they’re going out of their way to ignore the Dallas City Council all together and take their case for a more autocratic, less public network to the North Central Texas Council of Governments, or “COG.”

Not satisfied with allowing the worst environmental justice crisis  since West Dallas to explode into Shingle Mountain during his watch,  OEQ&(R)S’s James McQuire is now out to make sure Dallas residents never get a chance to make decisions about monitoring air quality in their own backyard.

Why? Because as one Dallas staffer put it, “too much participation by the public can be a bad thing.” McQuire and Company want a monitoring network staff can control without citizen participation or accountability, in other words the Status Quo. But of course the status quo has failed spectacularly to address both the region’s old, and new air pollution problems. UTD and Downwinders are proposing a model with heavy doses of public participation and representation.

So last month, McQuire submitted a request to COG to ignore what his own Dallas city council committee had endorsed, and instead start from scratch to build a less-democratic, more staff-driven network that would be run by the same agency that for years denied the Midlothian cement plants had any impact on DFW air quality.  He did this OVER THE OBJECTIONS of Quality of Life Chair Sandy Greyson, who has a healthy skepticism of CO’s abilities to look out for Dallas’ interests.

Like members of the Dallas Citizens Council who to make an end run around the City Council to get their own pet projects funded – see the VisitDallas headquarters slated for the new extension of Kyle Warren Park that is now being pimped by COG’s Director Michael Morris – McQuire is now circumventing his own Council and seeking relief from a “regional” agency that has historically only looked at air quality as an obstacle to highway funding.

So let that soak in – Dallas city staff is intentionally ignoring its elected city council and the only air monitoring approach that council is on record as supporting, and instead now backing its own more autocratic version which has never been voted on by council and in fact was rejected out of hand by council members when asked.

It would take a novel’s worth of history to make the full case of why the COG is a poor choice for any new serious clean air effort in DFW but let’s start with just fundamentals.

COG has never cared about air quality from a public health perspective. Ever. Any work it’s done or is doing now – including promotion of electric vehicles and other anti-smog measures – are aimed at keeping DFW out of “non-attainment status” with the Clean Air Act in order to keep getting precious federal highway money. As long as the dollars keep flowing, COG isn’t interested in taking on other kinds of air pollution besides smog, or doing research into how even routine levels of combustion pollution are harmful, or until this moment, shown any interest in doing the air monitoring other metro areas are now routinely engaged in.

This skewed perspective is reflected in the language of McQuire’s proposal to COG. It’s all about how this air monitoring network could be a boon to transportation planning and oh by the way, maybe be of some public health interest too.

Because it lacks a public health perspective and is run by a cabal of local governments and staff by way of committees    within committees, COG has been every bit as pro-active about bad air as the Dallas OEQ(R)S under McQuire, which is to say not a bit.

Downwinders spent years trying to convince COG leadership that three giant cement plants located in close proximity to each other in Midlothian, upwind of Dallas, and in eyesight of I-20 did in fact contribute to DFW smog. Despite spewing the equivalent of half a million cars worth of air pollution every year and being sited just across the Dallas and Tarrant county lines, the COG folks just didn’t get it – until Downwinders had to petition the EPA to bring those cement plants into DFW’s official smog plan itself. Those cement plants now have to be included in regional anti-smog plants but COG didn’t do that, citizens did.

When COG was writing its anti-smog plans, there were only two sides represented in it regional Clean Air Steering Committee: city staff and business. It took Downwinders to organize a collective boycott of this process until environmental groups were given seats at the table. COG didn’t do that, citizens did.

When fracking came to DFW, COG was as reluctant to point the finger at this huge source of new air pollution as it had been with the Midlothian cement plants. Why? Because local governments were benefactors of the Barnett Shale “boom” in tax revenues and drilling leases. COG steered clear from even acknowledging gas drilling as a significant air pollution problem and aligned with industry to dismiss concerns. It was up to local residents living next to drilling pads and compressor stations to write new rules for everything the drilling boom brought with it. Dallas residents wrote the most protective gas drilling rules in the state. COG didn’t do that, citizens did.

And if it had really been interested in air quality and air quality monitoring, the COG has had years to develop the idea and pursue it. It did not. Instead it was left up to non-profits like Downwinders and UTD to design and build a new approach to air monitoring. For over three years now this effort as been in the works and in fact James McQuire and his staff sat in on the meetings where the UTD model that was endorsed by his own council was drafted. He raised no objections at the time. Instead he waited until after the effort was finished and begin to sabotage it immediately from behind closed doors. Despite his best efforts at scuttling the proposal, the UTD model made it to Greyson’s committee and won a 7-0 vote. COG and Dallas OEQ(R)S didn’t do that. Citizens did.

And so now two of the region’s two most citizen-hostile entities are trying to team up and let COG do for Dallas air quality monitoring what it’s done to Dallas transportation policy – make it top heavy, unresponsive, undemocratic and staff controlled. 

Like Greyson, Dallas County Commissioner Theresa Daniel is four-square against the COG idea and in favor of more public participation. Representing the largest local government entity involved, her opposition may keep McQuire’s effort from taking off despite his best bureaucratic efforts. And there’s also the May elections in Dallas to consider. A new council could have a lot more confidence in overriding staff proposals than the current one. And maybe that accounts for McQuire’s proposal arriving at COG now as well.

What really frustrating is that if McQuire and staff hadn’t begun his campaign to undermine the one approach that was favored by most of the entities involved, the Dallas city council would have already approved the UTD plan and we’d be on our way to building a truly independent monitoring network. Until Dallas staff objected last fall, there was a consensus about how to proceed. He’s single-handedly gutted that consensus, stifled all progress, and kept DFW way behind the air monitoring curve.

We’ll keep you up to date on how far this COG proposal gets, but Downwinders in Denton, Plano and Fort Worth should be on alert that McQuire is trying to get those cities on board with the COG approach as well.  Please contact your most citizen-friendly council members and ask them not to support, what is in essence a staff coup in Dallas.

In the meantime, here’s one more question you can pose to Dallas council candidates this election season:  “Do you support staff’s attempt to override the will of the council and impose a less public -friendly COG-run air monitoring network on Dallas, or the homegrown version proposed by UTD that’s already received a 7-0 vote?”

If this is going to get done right, citizens will have to do it.

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