(Dallas)– In an unprecedented rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas has refused to provide critical data EPA says it needs to approve the state’s controversial anti-smog plan for DFW, which requires no new pollution controls despite more than two decades of chronic bad air.
Texas' refusal to cooperate with EPA puts its plan, scheduled to be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality December 9th, on a collision course with the federal agency.
Although EPA gives state governments authorization to write smog plans for their own metropolitan areas, it still has final approval based on criteria listed in the Clean Air Act. EPA disapproval of the State's DFW plan would trigger the possibility of a federal takeover of the air planning process.
That would be fine with local air quality activists, who've been pushing for the EPA to take over the job of writing a new clean air plan for North Texas since the State unveiled its first draft last year. They say TCEQ's official position that smog isn't harming public health means the Commission can't be trusted to write an effective anti-smog plan. When the state announced a plan imposing no new controls on any sources of air pollution despite DFW being in continual violation of the Clean Air Act for the last quarter century, they feel they were proven right.
"It's as if the state is too embarrassed to do what EPA is asking for fear of finding facts that don't match its ideology," said Jim Schermbeck, Director of the local clean air group, Downwinders at Risk.
He noted among the most important missing items in the State’s final plan published November 20th was a "Reasonably Available Control Technology"(RACT) study for the Midlothian cement plants, as well as answers to the impact of controls on other sources like the East Texas coal plants and oil and gas facilities that EPA posed in its eleven pages of official comments on the first draft last February. Application of modern pollution controls to all major sources of air pollution in a smog-plagued region is a key component of the Clean Air Act.
In official comments last February, EPA specifically requested the state perform a new study of what kind of smog controls should be required of the three Midlothian cement plants immediately south of DFW. EPA warned lack of such a study would mean the plan would be disapproved:
"Failure to conduct a thorough RACT analysis for cement kilns which would include appropriate emission limits would prevent us from approving the RACT portion of the attainment plan submittal.”
By turning-in the same version of the technology review originally criticized by EPA, without any new additional analysis, the TCEQ began a bureaucratic game of "Chicken," daring the EPA to deny approval.
"If you're EPA, I don't see how you take this any other way than a big raised middle finger from Austin," said Schermbeck. "The question is: What's EPA gonna do about it now?"
Also missing in the final state version are any responses to other EPA's concerns and questions about the plan's chances of actually lowering smog levels and the possibilities of reducing smog with new controls on other sources, such as,
“How would a reduction in NOx emissions from utility electric generators in the counties closest to the eastern and southern boundaries of the DFW area impact the DFW area?”
EPA was already openly skeptical about the chances of the state’s plan succeeding without requiring any additional cuts in pollution. Stating “it would be difficult to see” how the plan meets its required 2017 deadline, the Agency concluded “we believe it is likely that additional reductions will need to be included to demonstrate attainment.”
TCEQ’s resubmitted plan doesn’t have any additional reductions. Failure of a state plan to show how it can reach the smog standard by 2017 would be cause for EPA to assume the job itself.
Evidence suggests the state is purposely overlooking the air quality benefits of controls on large industrial sources of air pollution affecting DFW.
In late October, Downwinders at Risk released a new study of its own. It paid for University of North Texas engineers to build a clone of the State’s DFW air computer model and run a series of control scenarios the state hasn’t performed in almost a decade. Using the TCEQ’s own numbers it showed new controls on the cement kilns, coal plants, and gas compressors in the Barnett Shale would lower smog levels enough to meet the current federal smog standard. DFW hasn’t met a federal standard for smog since once was created in 1991.
Dismissing the results as “limited,” TCEQ officials nevertheless agreed with them – since they were based on their own model. The State argues those new controls are not yet technically or economically feasible – despite their being commonplace around the world, in the US, and even in Texas.
This question is one of the keys to the standoff with EPA: are the proposed new controls for industry “Reasonably Available” or not? If they are, they must be included in the air plan. If not, they remain off the table. EPA makes the first call on a definition, and any aggrieved party can sue to expand or contract it.
Because it’s a national hot spot for smog, DFW is only one of a handful of US metro areas that even had to submit a clean air plan this last cycle. EPA computer modeling predicts the area will still be in violation of the Clean Air Act in 2015 unless significant reductions in pollution are made.
This summer saw the North Texas regional smog average rise twice in one hot August week, retreating from gains made during last year’s cooler, wetter summer. DFW once again has higher annual smog levels than Houston. Both cities remain well above the current standard.
According to the American Lung Association, the 10 county DFW “non-attainment” area for smog includes approximately 150,000 asthmatic children, 350,000 adults with asthma, and over 600,000 adults with cardiovascular disease or COPD – all of whom are at risk from the region’s bad air.
“The lungs and lives of seven million residents are being held hostage by a state government that doesn’t think smog is a problem and isn’t willing to require new pollution controls to reduce it, “ Schermbeck pleaded
“Expecting the State of Texas to enforce Environmental laws in 2015 is like expecting the State of Mississippi to enforce Civil Rights laws in 1965. Our only hope is federal intervention.”
In the month that just ended, we only had four monitors on four days that violated the new 75 parts per billion smog standard that takes effect in 2018, and zero violations of the obsolete 1997 85 ppb standard. The maximum 8-hour reading was an 83 at the Denton Airport on June 3rd. Contrast that with last June: 54 violations of the 75 ppb standard and 27 violations of the 85 ppb standard over 9 days. Or 2011 – 24 violations of the 75 ppb standard, 7 violations of the 85 standard.
In fact, you have to go back all the way to 2007 when we had five violations of the 75 ppb standard but no "exceedences" of the 85 ppb, to find as good a June for air quality as we just had. And there are only a couple of other Junes – in 2010 and 2000 that even come close to being as full of safe and legal air. That's the good news.
The bad news is that these years were all followed by worsening air quality trends, that is, they turned out to be aberrations. So if this pattern holds, we'll have to wait until next summer to put it in context. As always, weather has a lot to do with how bad or good our ozone season is. The cooler and wetter, the better. The dryer and hotter, the worse. Just as this summer's cooler temps seem like they're out of place, by next June we could be thinking the same thing about our reprieve from smog.
The good news is that there's no questions that declining emissions in almost every category (we're looking at you oil and gas) have had a positive impact on the numbers. That's your doing. After 20 years of citizen effort, there's a lot less pollution from the cement plant complex in Midlothian, the coal plant belt in East Texas, and the millions of vehicles on and off the road.
For the EPA and the state, 2013 comes a year too late to help them recover from a terrible 2011 "clean air plan" that was supposed to get us down below 85 ppb by watching people purchase new cars. The clock officially ran out on that plan June 15th. Sales of new vehicles are dramatically up, so there's real displacement as old gas guzzlers get traded in for more efficient models. Whether those trade-ins are enough to cancel out the still-exploding growth rate of the area and rising gas and oil activity remains to be seen. That's why the EPA uses a three-year rolling average to determine transgressions against the Clean Air Act, to minimize the impact of anomalies.
You're just going to have to stay tuned to find out whether the summer of 2013 is the exception to the rule, or the re-writing of the rules.
So what's the explanation this year?
With yesterday's high ozone levels sending a 6th monitor into an exceedance of the old 1997 85 parts per billion smog standard, DFW is just one more bad air day away from matching last year's dreadful results. Today's ozone forecast says there should be no high levels of smog in DFW today, even as the temperature reaches for a record high. But then again, they weren't predicted Thursday either.
To give you some idea how rapidly things have gone downhill for air quality in DFW the past two years, just look at the annual numbers. From 2007 to 2010, we had a total of nine monitors register official exceedances of the 85 ppb standard. That's about two monitors a year average. This turns out to be the closest we've ever come to actually meeting the standard. Officials could argue with some justification that air quality was slowly getting better.
On the other hand, during the last two years, we've had 13 monitors record exceedances of the 85 ppb standard, an average of 6.5 a year, and 2012's ozone season is not yet over. You could add up all the exceedances from the four years between 2007 and 2010 and still not equal the number we've experienced in just the last 24 months.
This is not progress.
TCEQ and the gas industry have argued for some time that gas mining couldn't possibly be contributing to smog problems since smog levels were going down as drilling was increasing in DFW. But that's not true anymore. As gas drilling has moved further and further east – into the heart of the non-attainment area, we've seen in increase in ozone concentrations, in exceedances in monitors, and monitors in the eastern part of the Metromess exceeding the standard that hadn't done so in five to seven years.
Meanwhile all other major source categories for air pollution have been decreasing their emissions. Cars, power plants and cement kilns are actually releasing less air pollution now than they were ten or 20 years ago. Only one large specific source category has increased its annual tonnage significantly over that same time – oil and gas.
Is it just a coincidence that smog is getting worse as oil and gas pollution skyrocket – not only in the Barnett Shale that surrounds DFW on three sides, but by all the new oil and gas sources now southeast of Dallas as part of the Haynesville Shale play that are blowing their pollution toward us most of the ozone season? There are now so many gas compressors in Freestone County, less than 75 miles away from the Dallas County line, that their emissions represent the equivalent of over 4 new Big Brown coal plants. What do you think the impact on air quality would be of four large new coal plants located immediately upwind of DFW? Might it look a lot like it does in 2012?
Could it be that the dirty mining of "clean" natural gas is making it impossible for DFW to meet the old 85 ozone standard, much less the new 75 ppb one? That the Devil's Bargain so many former and current elected officials made with the gas operators to grab the cash and run is now coming back to bite them and us in the air quality butt? That was certainly the conclusion of the study we publicized this last Tuesday from the Houston Advanced Research Center:
"Major metropolitan areas in or near shale formations will be hard pressed to demonstrate future attainment of the federal ozone standard, unless significant controls are placed on emissions from increased oil and gas exploration and production….urban drilling and the associated growth in industry emissions may be sufficient to keep the area (DFW) in nonattainment."
It's time for local officials to replace those cash registers in their eyes with gas masks. Because of their rush to make money, they didn't pause to understand how so much new industrial activity could produce smog just like the bad ol' days. They were being paid not to understand. And now 5 to 6 million people who still can't yet breathe safe and legal air are paying the price.