State officials and industry PR types thought they'd caught a break last summer when two things produced a much lower annual smog average, called a "Design Value."
Since it's a three-year rolling average of smog numbers, past years roll off as new ones come on. Smog numbers from 2011 that had been so high they'd sent the average soaring, were finally rolling off and wouldn't be included in the average.
Second, unusually cooler temperatures and rain kept a new round of numbers lower. Combined, these factors resulted in a significant decrease in the smog average for 2014.
But in 2015, a more typical summer, or at least August, is bringing the average back up (Over 60% of the 100 highest recorded levels of smog this summer occurred in the last 30 days). Smog levels are higher across the board this year than last. There are more monitors recording more "exceedences" of the national smog standard. Leading them all is the Denton monitor, which saw ozone levels rise on Thursday and then skyrocket on Friday. The numbers were so high on both days they moved the needle of the annual smog average, the DFW Design Value, up from 81 to 82 parts per billion (ppb) on Thursday and up to 83 ppb on Friday. The standard is 75 ppb.
Even though Houston has recorded higher smog numbers than DFW this year, 2014's lower smog numbers was even more anomalous for that city than for North Texas. Last year's much lower numbers in the Bayou City are canceling out this year's much higher numbers. So that in 2015, DFW's Denton monitor's annual average of 83 ppb is the highest in the State of Texas.
And that means that according to the official accounting of the Clean Air Act, DFW has dirtier air than Houston. And not for the first time.
It also means we're rolling backwards in terms of air quality progress. With at least a whole month of "ozone season" to go, DFW's smog average is now only a little lower than it was in 2009. It would only take one or two more bad days to raise the average again.
This is the second time in four years that DFW's smog average has increased during the implementation of a state clean air plan for the area. Neither plan required new controls on large industrial polluters significantly contributing to the problem, like the gas industry, East Texas coal plants, and Midlothian cement kilns. There may be some connection there.
Given the state's stellar two decade-old track record of never meeting a clean air plan deadline, its latest plan was always likely to fail. But a federal court roll back of the deadline to get to the 75 ppb standard at all DFW monitors, from 2018 to 2017, plus these new 2015 smog numbers, make it DOA in the real world.
However, in the regulatory world governing these things officially, the plan is still being reviewed by the EPA and, believe it or not, could get approved if citizens don't make a big stink.
Many clean air advocates cautioned that 2014 should be seen as a outlier, and this summer is justifying that caution. If the experts are right, climate change will mean future summers will be more like 2011 than 2014. We've got to have a more realistic approach to the goal of safe and legal air. The State of Texas will not provide that. EPA can.
All Day NATIONAL Public Hearing on a New Federal Ozone Standard
Thursday, January 29th, 9am to 7:30 pm
Arlington City Hall, 101 W. Abram
(To secure a 3-minute speaking slot, e-mail Eloise Shepard and ask for one in the time period most convenient for you. Slots are going fast (and not necessarily to citizens), so do it asap: email@example.com)
It's Round Two of January's clean air public hearing marathon, and the biggest has been saved until last.
One of only three national public hearings on lowering the federal ozone, or smog standard, is taking place here in DFW, at Arlington City Hall all day next Thursday January 29th, from 9 am to 7:30 pm.
Last week saw a state-sponsored hearing on another TCEQ do-nothing DFW clean air plan. But the state wouldn't even have to pay lip service to such plans were it not for the requirement to meet a federal ozone level and the region's inability to do so over the last two decades.
Lowering the federal ozone level means it will be tougher in the future for the state to claim it doesn't have to implement any new pollution controls on cement kilns, coal plants, or gas facilities. More importantly, enforcement of a tougher standard means better public health: fewer "bad air days," fewer asthma attacks, fewer trips to the emergency room because your child can't breath, and fewer deaths caused by dirty air.
That's important because reports like the child heath survey from Cook Children's hospital in 2009 showed that childhood asthma rates in DFW were twice the state average and almost 10% higher than the national average. It called the prevalence of asthma among local children an "epidemic."
Currently, the national ozone standard is 75 parts per billion (ppb) – which DFW is still at least three years away from reaching even under the rosiest of scenarios. (Right now our average is 81 ppb, and that's only because of a wetter and cooler summer in 2014). But that 75 ppb number is a political compromise – not one grounded in science. Based on public health studies the EPA's own independent board of specialists has recommended a range of 60 to 70 ppb at least three times since 2008, with an emphasis on the lower end of that range. Now it looks as if the EPA is finally willing to follow through on that recommendation.
EPA's national ozone standard sets the goal of cleaner air that every state must work toward. It drives all new clean air plans. like the one the state of Texas is proposing for DFW right now. The lower the standard, the more pollution has to be reduced. The more pollution has to be reduced, the more controls have to be added to major sources of air pollution to get that reduction. That's how you get long-term clean air progress in states like Texas that refuse to act on their own.
A significant reduction in the federal standard – from 75 (ppb) to as low as 60 ppb would make it much, much harder for Texas to avoid new controls on industry. To give you some idea of how much harder, consider that the state's "plan" for compliance with the current 75 ppb level is completely dependent on a new EPA gasoline mix coming onto the market in 2017. Even then, it's own estimates say that it won't get down below 75 at least three or four monitoring sites. Just one monitor site out of compliance means the whole region is in violation. Short of a huge rise in the use of electric cars, more huge decreases in vehicle pollution aren't expected. Additional significant drops in smog that would be required under a new, lower standard would have to include controls on major industrial sources – like the cement kilns, coal plant and, yes even gas facilities.
When you have a much lower ozone standard, you have to reduce smog by addressing ALL sources of air pollution.
Finding a way to comply with a lower national ozone standard is how more modern pollution controls were mandated almost a decade ago at the Midlothian cement plants. Meeting that new ozone standard meant pollution from the kilns had to be reduced and that made it more possible for Downwinders' "Green Cement" campaign to work with local governments. Today, there are no obsolete "wet kilns" left in Texas – they've all been replaced with more modern dry kiln operations. This has resulted in a reduction of hundreds, even thousands, of tons of smog-forming air pollution from these huge sources every year. We still have to require state-of-the-art Selective Calaytic Reduction (SCR) on the kilns, but they're releasing far less pollution than they were even five years ago because they've had to comply with a new federal ozone level.
With a new, lower ozone standard, the same could be true of new controls on gas facilities, like the 650 large compressors in North Texas, and the East Texas coal plants. That's why it's important for Texas residents to fight for the lowest possible standard this time around. When you testify, please make sure you request a new standard of NOT MORE THAN 60 PARTS PER BILLION.
According to a recent EPA staff analysis, an ozone standard of 60 ppb would reduce asthma deaths in the US by 95%, compared to only a 50% reduction under a 70 ppb level. If you want air that can eliminate all but a small fraction of respiratory problems associated with outdoor pollution, you need to press for a 60 ppb standard.
Needless to say industry is fighting back hard against such a standard, using its usual doom and gloom forecasts of economic hardship. This is the same argument that was used against the current ozone standard – the one we have now in the middle of the biggest economic boom in a decade. In fact, the technology for bringing down pollution levels currently exists in many industries – including kilns, coal plants and compressors. It's not experimental and it's not too expensive to use, as demonstrated by its use right now in those industries. We just have to require its use in states like Texas that are refusing to implement progress. That's why this new standard is so important – it will make the state take action it would not otherwise take. It's one of the only ways citizens who care about cleaner air in Texas can force progress.
Likewise, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's own toxicologist, Michael "Smog Ain't Bad For You" Honeycutt will also be testifying. TCEQ knows that a lower standard will force its hand on new controls. It will be pulling out all the stops to use its influence and that of sympathetic elected officials to scuttle any change. Using ideologically-based arguments supported by industry-financed studies, the TCEQ will say there are no real benefits to reducing DFW smog. Those of you that know better have to show up and say so.
Speaking slots for the 29th are going very fast. Industry will be well-represented. Please don't get left out. We need your voice that day to call for a 60 ppb national ozone standard. E-mail the EPA at firstname.lastname@example.org and reserve your time today.