Middle Finger

(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.”

Dead_Parrot_SketchEPA has released the results of the first test of a full-scale Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) unit on a US cement plant and the numbers look good.

As many of you know, SCR is just an industrial-sized version of the catalytic converter in your car. It can capture up to 90% or more of the smog-forming pollution from a cement plant. In use on cement kilns since 2001, there are at least a half a dozen cement plants in Europe that use SCR successfully, but the technology has been slow to arrive in the US because of regulatory laziness and industry resistance.

But after 15 years, that's finally changing.

in 2013, LaFarge Cement entered into a consent decree with the EPA and the US Justice Department as part of a settlement over a string of environmental violations, including excessive smog-forming Nitrogen Oxide (NOX) emissions. As part of that settlement, Lafarge was to retrofit its Joppa, Illinois "dry process" cement kiln with an SCR unit, record its effectiveness during stack testing, and report on the results of those tests by 2015.

This last week, those results were finally made available by EPA and they show SCR was able to reduce NOx by 80%. 

That's approximately twice as effective as SNCR technology, (Selective NON-Catalytic Reduction), the current pollution control device for NOx most often used in U.S. cement plants.

Moreover, according to LaFarge, "the SCR control technology performed well and no operational problem was encountered."

In fact, the control technology worked so well, LaFarge is now getting a permit from the Illinois state environmental agency to operate SCR past the EPA-mandated settlement period.

But while LaFarge is getting its SCR permit, Holcim's Midlothian cement plant has already applied and been granted one by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for construction and operation of its own SCR unit. It should be up and running by this time next year.

So that makes two U.S. cement plants with permits to run full-scale SCR units. One that was forced into the choice by EPA and now wants to keep using it, and another voluntarily adding it.

But according to the TCEQ, even though it gave a permit to Holcim to install SCR, and even though Holcim's SCR unit will be operational in a year, and even though the LaFarge test was a success, and even though SCR has been used for 15 years by European cement companies – SCR is "not economically or technically feasible." That's exactly what the Commission said in response to comments from both citizens and the EPA in its new clean air plan for DFW a couple of months ago.  

That's right. One the one hand the Commission has granted a permit to Holcim to build an SCR unit in its own backyard, and on the other it's still calling the technology infeasible. It's the stuff of Monty Python sketches.

And that's not all. There is no mention of the Holcim Cement SCR permit in the TCEQ's own official arguments against SCR in its DFW clean air plan. Not one. Since Holcim's building of an SCR unit would tend to empirically disprove TCEQ's contention that the technology wasn't practical, the state just pretends it's not happening. As with climate change and smog, any facts that conflict with the pre-determined ideologically-correct premise must be ignored. 

Presumably, Holcim is building the SCR unit because it's made the business judgment that the technology is not only both economically and technologically feasible, but beneficial to the company's bottom line. Presumably LaFarge is pursuing a permit for its SCR unit because it has made the same practical decision. Yet, in a strange role reversal, a Texas state government agency is now telling business it's making the wrong choices. It's overruling the industry's decision to reduce pollution through SCR use by saying "not so fast."

This is how bad its gotten: the Texas approach to clean air is now so backwards that the cement industry is more aggressive about reducing pollution than Austin.

So how many U.S. cement plants have to be operating with SCR before the State of Texas concludes it's a feasible technology? Two? Four? A Dozen?

Fortunately, the TCEQ isn't the last word on this. The Clean Air Act says any and all reasonably available technology must be used on major pollution sources like the Midlothian cement plants when a clean air plan is being drafted. TCEQ hasn't done that. We think they're breaking the law. There are signs that EPA thinks so as well. 

EPA is ultimately in charge of enforcing the Clean Air Act, and if it doesn't do it correctly, then the courts step in.

The best hope for safe and legal air in DFW is for EPA to rigorously enforce the law. The State of Texas will not do so. If you agree then please take a minute to:

1) sign this petition to EPA

2) Send this e-mail to EPA

Thanks.

Denton Raises DVState 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.

That's why you need to sign our Change.org petition to EPA to reject the state's plan and send an email to EPA officials requesting they write a new clean air plan instead of the state of Texas.

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.

alexander-pst mask 2
TCEQ Public Hearing on the new DFW Anti-Smog Plan
Thursday, January 15th  6:30 pm
Arlington City Hall, 101 W. Abram

Over the last two decades, we've seen some pretty lame DFW clean air plans produced by the state, but the newest one, scheduled for a public hearing a week from now, may be the most pathetic of the bunch.

From a philosophical perspective, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality stopped pretending to care about smog in DFW once Rick Perry decided to run for president around 2010 or so. Computer modeling was scaled back, staff was slashed, and the employees that were left had to be ideologically aligned with Perry's demand that no new controls on industry (i.e potential or existing campaign contributors) was preferable to six or seven million people continuing to breathe unsafe and illegal air.

TCEQ's 2011 anti-smog plan reflected that administrative nonchalance by concluding – in the the middle of the Great Recession – that consumers buying new cars would single-handedly deliver the lowest smog levels in decades. It did not. It went down in history as the first clean air plan for the area to ever result in higher ozone levels. The first, but maybe not the last.

This time around, it's not the cars themselves playing the role of atmospheric savior for TCEQ, but the fuel they'll run on. Beginning in 2017, the federal government is scheduled to introduce a new, low-sulfur gasoline that is predicted to bring down smog by quite a bit in most urban areas. Quite a bit, but not enough to reach the ozone standard of 75 ppb that's necessary to comply with the Clean Air Act by 2018. It's the gap between this official prediction and the standard where the state is doing a lot of hemming and hawing.

TCEQ staffers really did tell a summertime audience in Arlington that that estimated 2018 gap of between 1 and 2 ppb was "close enough" to count as a success. Now, you might give them the benefit of the doubt, but remember this is an agency that has never, ever been correct is its estimation of future ozone levels. After five attempts over the last two decades, TCEQ has never reached an ozone standard in DFW by the official deadline. Precedent says this plan won't even get "close enough."                      

Plus, we know getting "close" to 75 ppb isn't protecting public health in DFW. Even as this clean air plan is being proposed by Austin, the EPA is moving to lower the national ozone standard to somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb (There's a hearing on that at Arlington City Hall on January 29th). That new EPA ozone standard is due to be adopted by the end of this year. So this entire state plan is obsolete from a medical perspective. Instead of aiming for a level of ozone pollution closer to 70 ppb as soon as possible, it's not even getting down to a flat 75 ppb at all DFW monitors by 2018. It wil take an entirely new plan, and pulling TCEQ teeth, to do that much later. In other words, millions of people will have to wait as much as a five to seven years longer to get levels of air quality we know we need now in 2015.

What are the major flaws this time?

1. TCEQ is Using 2006 in 2014 to Predict 2018.

The EPA recommends that states use an "episode" of bad air days from the last three years – 2009-2013 – in trying to estimate what ozone levels will be three years from now. The more recent the data, the better the prediction.

TCEQ is ignoring that recommendation, relying on a computer model that's already nine years old. This has all kinds of ramifications on the final prediction of compliance. Instead of having more recent weather data, you have to "update" that variable. TCEQ doesn't have to compensate for the drought DFW is experiencing now or factor in a year like 2011 where the drought caused a worst case scenario for ozone formation.

TCEQ isn't using more recent data on how sensitive monitors are to Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – the major kinds of pollution that cause smog . That's important because gas production in the Barnett Shale has put a lot more VOCs in the air. But instead of getting a more accurate post-drilling boom read on what's driving smog creation, the TCEQ is relying on a picture that starts out before the boom ever started. 
The further you reach back in time for a model to predict future levels of smog, the fuzzier that future gets, and the less accurate the results. TCEQ is using a model that's twice to three times older than EPA guidance recommends. What are the odds that TCEQ estimates will be correct based on this kind of methodology?

2. TCEQ is Downplaying OIl and Gas Pollution

Citizens attending the air quality meetings in Arlington over the past year have seen the TCEQ try and hide the true volume and impact of oil and gas pollution at every turn. Instead of all the industry emissions being listed under the single banner of "Oil and Gas Pollution," the Commission has tried to disperse and cloak them under a variety of categories in every public presentation.

"Other Point Sources," a classification that had never been seen before, was the place where pollution from the 647 large compressor stations in DFW could be found – if you bothered to ask. "Area Sources" was where the emissions from the thousands of other, smaller compressors could be found – again, only if you asked. "Drilling" was separate from "Production." And despite other agencies being able to tease out what kind of pollution came from the truck traffic associated with fracking within their jurisdictions, the TCEQ never bothered to estimate how much of the emissions under "Mobile Sources" was generated by the Oil and Gas industry.

The reason the TCEQ has tried so hard to hide the true volumes of oil and gas pollution is because once you add up all of these disparate sources, the industry becomes the second largest single category of smog-forming pollution in DFW, second only to on-road cars and trucks (and remember many of those trucks are fracking-related). According to TCEQ's own estimates, oil and gas facilities in North Texas produce more smog-forming VOC pollution than all of the cars and trucks in the area combined, and more smog-forming NOx pollution than the Midlothian cement plants and all the area's power plants combined.

TCEQ is loathe to admit the true size of these emissions and place them side-by-side next to other, traditional sources, lest the public understand just how huge a impact the oil and gas industry has on air quality. Austin's party line is that this pollution isn't contributing to DFW smog – that it's had no impact on local air quality. But such a claim isn't plausible. If cars are a source of smog, and cement kilns and power plants are a source of smog, how can a category of VOC and NOx pollution dwarfing those sources not also be a source of smog? Think how much less air pollution we'd have if the Barnett Shale boom of the last eight years had not taken place?

In it's last public presentation in August, the TCEQ made the impact of oil and gas pollution clear despite itself. According to the staff, oil and gas emissions were going to be decreasing in the future more than they had previously estimated. As a result, a new chart showed that certain ozone monitors, including the one in Denton, would see their levels of smog come down significantly. It was exactly the proof of a causal link between gas and smog that TCEQ had been arguing wasn't there. Only it was.

In terms of forecasting future smog pollution, TCEQ is underplaying the growth of emissions in the gas patch. Everything it's basing its 2018 predictions on is years out-of-date, leftover from its last plan.

Drilling rig pollution is extrapolated from a 2011 report that counts feet drilled instead of the actual number of rigs. TCEQ predicts a decline in drilling and production in the Barnett Shale without actually estimating what that means in terms of the number of wells or their location. It also assumes a huge drop-off in gas pollution after 2009 that hasn't been documented by any updated information. It's only on paper.

While recent declines in the price of oil and gas have certainly put a damper on a lot of drilling activity, there's still a significant amount going on. Look no further than Mansfield, where Edge is now applying for permit to build a new compressor and dozens of new wells on an old pad.

In 2011, nobody was building Liquified Natural Gas terminals up and down the Gulf Coast for an export market the way they are now. Analysts say those overseas markets could produce a "second boom" in drilling activity between now and 2018, but the TCEQ forecasts don't take that into account.

Gas production pollution numbers – emissions from compressors, dehydrators, storage tanks – are even more tenuous. Every gas industry textbook explains that as gas plays get older, the number of lift compressors increases in order to squeeze out more product. Increase the number of compressors and you increase the amount of compressor pollution. But TCEQ numbers fly in the face of that textbook wisdom and predict a decline in compressor pollution because wells in the Barnett Shale are getting older!

The best analogy for how TCEQ is estimating oil and gas pollution is its poor understanding of where those thousands of smaller compressor are and how much pollution they're actually producing. No staff member at TCEQ can tell you how many of those compressors there are in the region – they literally have no idea and no idea of how to count them in the real world. There are just too many, their locations are unknown, and they were never individually permitted.

Instead, the TCEQ takes production figures from the Railroad Commission and guesses how many of those small compressors there are, as well as their location, based on where the RRC tells it production is going on in the Shale. Then staff guesses again about the emissions being emitted by those compressors, because there's no data telling them what those emissions actually are. In the end you have a series of lowballed guestimates, stacked one atop the other, presented as fact. It's smoke and mirrors.

3. TCEQ Isn't Requiring Any New Controls on Any Major Sources of Air Pollution

Like its previous 2011 DFW air plan, which resulted in an increase in North Texas ozone levels, TCEQ's new plan requires no new controls on any major sources of air pollution, despite evidence showing that such controls in smog-forming emissions from the Midlothian cement plants, East Texas coal plants, and Barnett Shale gas facilities could cut ozone levels significantly.  

Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) is already used extensively in the cement plant industry in Europe to reduce smog pollution by up to 90%. Over a half dozen different plants have used the technology since 2000. The TCEQ's own 2006 report on SCR concluded it was "commercially available." Holcim Cement has already announced it will install SCR in its Midlothian cement plant. Yet the TCEQ makes no mention of this in its plan.

That's right, a cement plant in Midlothian has decided SCR is commercially viable, but the State is looking the other way and pretending this development in its own backyard isn't even happening. TCEQ is stating in its proposed plan that SCR just isn't feasible!

In 2013, a UTA Department of Engineering study looked at what happened if you reduced Midlothian cement plant pollution by 90% between 6 am and 12 Noon on weekdays. Ozone levels went down in Denton by 2 parts per billion. That may not seem like a lot, but in smog terms it's the difference between the Denton air monitor violating the 75 ppb standard under the TCEQ plan and complying with the Clean Air Act.

In 2012 a UTA College of Nursing study found higher rates of childhood asthma in Tarrant County "in a linear configuration" with the plumes of pollution coming from the Midlothian cement plants. SCR means less pollution of all kinds: smog, dioxins and the particulate matter the Nursing College thought was causing those increased rates of childhood asthma. By delaying the requirement that all the Midlothian cement plants install SCR by 2018, the state is turning its back on a problem that Cook Children's hospital described as "an epidemic."

The same is true of SCR in the East Texas coal plants. The technology is being used in other coal plants around the world and in the US to reduce smog pollution. There's no reason it shouldn’t be required for the dirtiest coal plants in Texas that impact DFW air quality. After decades of being out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, DFW is one of the places the technology is needed most.

Last year the Dallas County Medical Society, led by Dr. Robert Haley, petitioned the TCEQ to either close those coal plants or install SCR on them. The doctors' petition was rejected by TCEQ Commissioners and they were told their concerns would be addressed in the DFW air plan. They aren't. Those concerns, along with the proof they presented about the impact of the plants on local air quality, are being ignored.

Electrification of gas compressors is a commonly used technology that could cut smog pollution as well, and yet the TCEQ is not requiring new performance standards that would force operators of hundreds of diesel and gas-powered compressors in North Texas to switch to electricity. 

A 2012 Houston Advanced Research Center study found that pollution from a single compressor could raise local ozone levels by as much as 3 to 10 ppb as far away as ten miles. There are at least 647 large compressor stations in the western part of the DFW area. Dallas and other North Texas cities have written ordinances requiring only electric-powered compressors within their city limits based on testimony from industry that electrification was a commonly used technology in the industry. And yet, TCEQ's official position is that electrification isn't feasible.

In ignoring these types of new controls the TCEQ is violating provisions of the Clean Air Act to implement "all reasonably available control technologies and measures" to insure a speedy decrease in ozone levels. Each of these technologies is on the market, being used in their respective industries, and readily available. Studies have shown that each of these technologies could cut ozone levels in DFW significantly, but the TCEQ is refusing to implement them. In doing so, many observers believe it's blatantly in violation of the law.

We don't expect TCEQ to change its position. That well has been poisoned for the foreseeable future. But we do expect a higher standard of enforcement from the Obama Administration EPA. That's why we're asking you to show-up at the public hearing and oppose this dreadful state air plan a week from now in Arlington. We need to demonstrate to the federal government that citizens are concerned about getting cleaner air now, not in the next plan or the one after that. Now. We need to put pressure on the EPA to reject this TCEQ plan, to either send it back to the drawing board or substitute one of its own. Without you showing up, that pressure isn't there.  

Between now and Thursday – and all the way through January 30th, you can send prepared comments opposing the TCEQ plan to Austin and the EPA Regional Administrator with a simple click here – and add your own comments as well.

As a reward for coming over and venting your frustration, we'd like you to stay and party with us at the official "retirement party" of State Representative Lon Burnam, beginning at 7:30 pm just four blocks down the street. It's a roasting and toasting of the best friend environmentalists ever had in the Texas Legislature, as well as a fundraiser for Downwinders to continue our work to defend your air. JUST CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS.

Next Thursday you can support clean air two ways in one evening. Help us beat back a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad air plan, and then come celebrate the wonderful, righteous, very good work of a dedicated public servant. See you there.

hanging gas mask on hookFor the first time since DFW began recording its smog levels, the region's three-year running average dipped below the 1997 eight-hour 85 parts per billion (ppb) standard. After years of leveling off at around 86-87, it's dropped to 81 ppb.  That's good news.

DFW's decrease is attributed to 2011's terrible numbers rolling off the board and a wetter, cooler and windier summer than normal these last five months or so. As both drought-ridden 2011 and this year's results demonstrate, weather still plays an extremely critical role in how large or small our smog problem will be. Another summer or two like 2011 could easily put us back over the 1997 standard. More wet and cooler weather could see the decrease continue.

The news would be better except that we were supposed to have originally accomplished this milestone in 2009, then again last year after a second try, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

As it is, we still haven't reached the current, more protective 2008 national standard that was revised downward to 75 ppb after a review of the scientific literature.

In January, TCEQ will host a public hearing on its proposed "plan" to EPA to meet that goal that predicts most, but not all DFW monitors will reach 75 ppb by the summer of 2018. 

Despite overwhelming evidence that new controls on the Midlothian cement plants and the reduction of gas industry pollution could speed this achievement, TCEQ's new plan contains no new pollution control measures on any major sources of smog polluters – cement kilns, coal plants, gas sources – but instead relies on the federal adoption of a new lower-sulfur gasoline mix for on-road vehicles. Like past proposals by Rick Perry's TCEQ, this one depends solely on the feds to get them into compliance. TCEQ isn't lifting a regulatory finger to help.

And its new plan once again aims high, not low. At last count, there were at least three Tarrant and Denton County monitors that TCEQ admitted would still be above the 75 ppb standard at the end of 2018. "Close enough" is the reply from Austin.

From a public health perspective, it's even worse. Why does the ozone standard keep routinely going down? Because new and better evidence keeps accumulating to show widespread health problems at levels of exposure to smog that were once considered "safe." About every five years, the EPA's scientific advisory committee must assess the evidence and decide if a new standard needs to be enforced to protect public health.

For most of the last ten years, the position of this independent panel of scientists is that the standard should be somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb. They were ignored in 2008. They were ignored in 2011. They once again came to this conclusion last May. What was the evidence that persuaded them? That the current 75 ppb standard for smog causes almost 20% of children in "non-attainment areas" to have asthma attacks, and leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Cutting the standard to 60 ppb reduces those deaths by 95%. Since the Clean Air Act states the EPA is duty bound to set a smog standard protective of human health, 60 ppb seems to be the threshold level that the current scientific literature says is actually safe for the majority of the population most vulnerable to the impact of bad air. By contrast, a smog level of 70 ppb only reduces those deaths by 50%. (Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Health and Environmental Impacts Division, Ambient Standards Group, August 2014)

By December 1st, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy must decide whether to officially recommend a standard in that 60-70 ppb range. It looks as though this time, the EPA might just endorse what the scientists are recommending, although it's unclear whether it'll be the upper or lower part of that range.

So even while the TCEQ is saying it's "close enough" to achieving the 75 ppb standard left over from George W's administration by 2018, the evidence is that level is too high to prevent large public health harms and must be lowered. A lot.

This is why it's so infuriating that the TCEQ is satisfied with getting only "close enough" to a 2008 standard that's about to become obsolete. Austin knows it could demand better air pollution control measures on the market right now that would accelerate the decrease in smog. It knows the pubic health would benefit from requiring such measures. But it's willing to condemn DFW children and others at risk for many more years for the sake of keeping its "business-friendly" reputation.

And while this year's slip below the 85 ppb standard is a sign of some progress, it remains true that DFW still has the worst air in Texas – a title we took from Houston years ago. Take a look at the chart summarizing the 2014 ozone season across Texas. Despite the nicer weather, DFW still had almost twice as many readings above 75 ppb as Houston and four above the 85 ppb standard. Houston had no readings above 85. In fact, San Antonio was the only other city to record a level so high – once.

2014 ozone resultsDFW still has a smog problem and all it takes is another hot and dry summer to see it escalate. We need the help more controls on major sources could give us. We need Selective Catalytic Reduction on ALL the Midlothian cement and East Texas coal plants. We need electrification of gas compressors in the Barnett Shale. This should be the message to both the TCEQ and EPA during the public hearing in January.

DFW smog in 2014: we've met the Clinton era standard for now, on the way to trying to get "close enough" to the W Standard, and still very far from a new Obama standard. Don't hang up the gas mask yet.

 

Orange smog in DallasJust last week at the June regional air quality planning meeting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was bemoaning the fact that the weather too often determines how bad an "ozone season" DFW will have. And it's true. When we have really hot, dry, and windless summers, ozone levels soar as they did as recently as 2011-2012 when the recent drought seemed to reach its most awful heights in DFW. Conversely, when we have relatively cool, wet and windy summers, ozone levels abate, as they seem to be doing this year – at least so far.

Of course, the TCEQ spokesperson was using weather as an excuse why DFW hadn't yet achieved compliance with the 1997 ozone standard after two tries that fell short. Completely overlooked was the fact that the last state air plan for DFW in 2011 promised historically low ozone levels by 2013 without any new pollution controls on major sources of pollution. Combine that lack of action with a really hot, dry summer like we saw in 2011, and you get the first clean air plan ever to leave ozone levels higher after it ended than when it started.

That's why it's important to think about the weather when you're trying to build new clean air plans for DFW that stretch years into the future. Air quality planners have to ask themselves if between now and the next federal clean air plan deadline of 2018, will there be more summers like this seemingly anomalous one, or will they more like the summer of 2011 when we had a constant barrage of 100 degree plus days as early as March?

Currently, the TCEQ is using a stretch of bad air days from 2006 to predict ozone levels between now and 2018 in their computer model for the DFW air plan to comply with the new, tougher 2008 ozone standard. But 2006 was pre-drought. Although they say they're "adjusting" the meteorology to compensate for weather changes since then, do you really trust TCEQ to assume worst-case weather scenarios when they're still trying to hide the smog impacts of gas pollution from the public? Us either.

So it's with more than a little self-interest that we note a new Stanford study with the too-sexy title of "Occurrence and Persistence of Future Atmospheric Stagnation Events" concluding that the Western US, including Texas, should expect hotter and therefore smoggier summers thanks to climate change. Why? Because hotter temperatures will slow the flow of air around the globe. That means less wind, and less wind means more time for smog-forming chemicals to sit and bake in the hot sun and form harmful levels of ozone. Historically, most of our worst ozone days are when winds are blowing less than 5 mph – stagnate air.

DFW isn't like Denver or LA where mountains form bowls around the urban areas and trap pollution in inversions. But the new study concludes the impact from global warming could have the same effect on the Texas prairie by stagnating air currents:

"Our analysis projects increases in stagnation occurrence that cover 55% of the current global population, with areas of increase affecting ten times more people than areas of decrease. By the late twenty-first century, robust increases of up to 40 days per year are projected throughout the majority of the tropics and subtropics, as well as within isolated mid-latitude regions. Potential impacts over India, Mexico and the western US are particularly acute owing to the intersection of large populations and increases in the persistence of stagnation events, including those of extreme duration. These results indicate that anthropogenic climate change is likely to alter the level of pollutant management required to meet future air quality targets."

And who's more prepared to deal with the "pollution management required to meet future (re: tougher) air quality targets than the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality?  Almost any one, including your 13-year old niece who's done so well in 8th grade science this year. Because not only is it the TCEQ's official position that smog isn't all that bad for you, but that there's really no such thing as climate change. It's why you should bring a boatload of skepticism to the computer model that's driving the currently proposed DFW clean air plan. To plug hotter and hotter temps into the DFW smog model for coming years would be admitting to a phenomena that the Rick Perry administration in Austin just can't bring itself to concede. One more example of how the DFW plan is being driven by politics, not science.

As the TCEQ's own staff admitted last week, DFW's ozone levels are often hostage to the weather. If you're model isn't correctly estimating the weather during future ozone seasons, chances are your estimates of future ozone levels will be off as well. But of course, since smog isn't really bad for you there's no downside to being wrong about these things at TCEQ HQ, and only an upside in GOP primaries.

For the rest of us who believe what the science tells us, the consequences are more dire. As the VICE magazine take on the Stanford study said:

"….one reason this study is so important to the climate change conversation—it underlines the public health threat posed by climbing temps. When Obama was touting the EPA's new carbon regulations, he emphasized the public health benefits of drawing down emissions: It would reduce asthma and respiratory illness, he pointed out. But that's largely because shuttering dirty power plants cuts both carbon and particulate pollutants simultaneously; fighting climate change also means fighting asthma.

Now, scientists have demonstrated there's an additional layer of concern to grapple with on the pollution front; climate change is going to begin blocking cities' toxic release valves. If we don't work to slow carbon emissions, these steamier cities will find their streets clogged with stagnant smog. Scrubbing that pollution and finding novel ways to clear the air, too, then, will prove to be a pressing concern in the not-so-distant future. 

Here's further proof that Governor Perry has transformed the world's second-largest environmental agency into just another extension of his on-going political campaign.

After waiting for a couple of days for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to say something about the failure of its latest DFW clean air plan to reach a 1997 ozone standard by the end of this "ozone season," Downwinders put out a release on Monday criticizing the agency for leaving the air dirtier than when the plan was begun in 2010.

To succeed, the TCEQ plan had to bring smog numbers down at all DFW monitors to 84 parts per billion or below by the end of this last summer, using three-year rolling averages incorporating readings from 2011 and 2010. The agency blithely predicted it would do just that and even published computer-modeled estimates of what the averages would be at the end of 2012. According to TCEQ we were supposed to see record low ozone levels this summer. So low that there would be no violations of the 1997 ozone standard for the first time since it was implemented.

Although the official EPA regulatory deadline to judge the plan a success or failure is June 15th, 2013, it's fate has already been decided by the data collected the three previous summers. That's important to know. TCEQ doesn't get another summer to prove that it's brilliant plan to sit back and watch people buy cars will work somehow, someway. The Clean Air Act only allows them three years to get their act together per plan. The clock started ticking in 2010. It stopped ticking on November 1, 2012, at the traditional end of DFW's ozone season. That was the practical deadline. All that's left to do is type up the report to EPA and submit it come June 15th of next year. They've run of of time.

But unless you've gone through this process before, or had been following the plan closely, you wouldn't necessarily know this. That was the case with Andrew McLemore, a reporter for the Fort Worth Weekly, who'd been assigned to follow up on the Downwinders release and e-mail the TCEQ for a response.

What TCEQ spokesperson Lisa Wheeler said to McLemore was that of course the agency never claimed to be able to meet the goal by 2012. We said we'd do it by June of 2013 – the regulatory deadline. Ohhhhh.

This is a great answer for a term paper that's late, but not so much when there's no more summers between now and June of next year to use in your clean air plan. Ozone data for November to June isn't going to do you any good because (unless global warming really accelerates) that's not the time of year we see high ozone numbers. And the plan has to use the highest of the high numbers. Telling McLemore that everyone had to wait until June to know the final results of the DFW air plan was like telling him to wait for the cake to cool for eight months after its' already been taken out of the oven. The thing is done. It's not getting any bigger, or sweeter-tasting, or rounder. It's not changing character or content. It is what it is right now.

TCEQ knows this. Lisa Wheeler knows that there will be no new numbers to add or subtract from that will make any difference. There will be no 2013 average that they can use to change the results from what they are at this moment. It's all already been determined by this summer's miserable showing, and the miserable showing before that in 2011. That's what makes this answer of theirs so incredibly cynical.

Wheeler apparently wanted to confuse McLemore, in essence saying, "Gee we really didn't fail yet – you have to wait until next June to conclude that. We still have time to change the outcome! " But because the data won't change, the results won't change either.

Don't take our word for it. TCEQ has a whole web page devoted to chronicling the proof that the DFW air plan has already failed – http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/cgi-bin/compliance/monops/8hr_attainment.pl

You'll notice this page, titled "Compliance with Eight-Hour Ozone Standard" has only three columns of data, one for 2010, one for 2011, and one for 2012. No column for 2013. You'll also notice that at the end of that three year cycle, there are two sites with running average that are at or above 85 ppb. The results are in. TCEQ's second clean air plan for DFW to reach the old 1997 standard in the last four years has failed. TCEQ just can't man-up and say so.

Not only has it failed. It's actually left DFW air dirtier than when it began. Here's why:

– Two monitors now have a three year running average (design value) of 85ppb or more. This is the same number as 2010, so no change at all on that front.

– The three year average for the region's highest reading actually went up 1 ppb from 2010 (86 ppb), to 2012 (87 ppb), with a spike of 90 ppb last year. Worse than 2010.

– Six monitors saw a violation of the 85 standard this summer by posting a 4th highest reading that was 85 ppb or above.  Only one monitor did that in 2010. 2012 is five times worse than 2010 by this measuring stick.

– The location of those violating monitors is of concern because they moved further east from the northwestern corner of Tarrant County where they'd been "contained" – all the way into central Dallas, where the "Hinton St. monitor" near Mockingbird and I-35 recorded a 4th highest reading of 85 ppb or above for the first time since 2005. Also proof things have gotten worse, not better.

So the latest TCEQ DFW clean air plan achieved the following: More numerous and geographically-dispersed violations, with an increase in average levels of air pollution that takes it further away from the 84 it needs to achieve, instead of bringing it closer.

Heckava job.

To fully appreciate the agency's mendacity in its public approach to this failure, all you have to do is ask yourself how TCEQ would have reacted had it somehow achieved the miraculous decrease in air pollution its clean air plan promised. Go look at the front page of the TCEQ website. It has almost as many diatribes against the EPA as it does real environmental policy news, including opinion pieces written by TCEQ Commissioners. Do you think the agency would have waited until June 15th, 2013 to trumpet its success just because of a meaningless, bureaucratic deadline? Neither do we.

The TCEQ is never going to be a trustworthy source of information or expertise in the fight against DFW smog again while Governor Perry is in office. The sooner local officials wise-up and chart their own path, the better.

For the second time in four years a state-designed clean air plan to bring safe and legal air to DFW residents has failed, missing its goal by an even wider margin than on its first try, and leaving local air quality worse than when it started.

November 1st marked the official end of the eight-month 2012 ozone season. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, its plan was supposed to deliver record-breaking clean air to DFW this summer on its way to bringing the region into compliance with the Clean Air Act for the first time in two decades.

 
Instead, six of the 20 ozone monitors in North Texas recorded levels of smog at or above the now-discarded 1997 standard of 85 parts per billion (ppb), while 17 of them recorded violations of the stricter new health- based 75ppb standard that will take effect in 2018.
 
Clean air activists were anything but surprised.
 
They accused the state plan of being designed to fail by a politicized TCEQ to avoid any new pollution controls on industry at a time when Governor Perry was running for President. Relying mainly on new car sales projections, TCEQ engineers assured local leaders that pollution levels would go down as older vehicles were traded-in for newer, cleaner ones.
 
"Since this 'plan' primarily rested on the hope that lots of people would buy new cars, no serious-thinking person thought it would work " said Jim Schermbeck of DFW-based Downwinders at Risk."Unfortunately, after 12 years of Rick Perry's leadership, the TCEQ is in short supply of serious-thinkers."
 
The margin of error between what TCEQ computer modeling predicted pollution levels would be at DFW air monitors in 2012, and the actual levels of smog they recorded this summer is over  20% at some locations.
 
The average error of all 20 monitors is 10 ppb. None of the 20 area monitors came closer than 4ppb to reaching its predicted TCEQ target.
 
A first attempt at reaching the 85ppb target fell short in 2009 -10, but gave the region its lowest-ever smog readings, albeit still illegal. Since then, air quality in DFW has been getting worse, not better.
 
In fact, air pollution is worse now than when the state started drafting its latest plan in 2010. Two years ago, there was only one monitor recording violations of the 85ppb standard. This year there are six.
 
"Only TCEQ could write a clean air plan that actually makes the air dirtier," remarked Schermbeck.
 
Some of the critical numbers from 2012 were slightly lower than 2011, when North Texas smog levels reached seven-year highs. The slip was large enough to allow Houston to retake a share of the title of "Smog Capital of Texas" that DFW claimed solely for itself last year.
 
In 2012, DFW has a rolling three-year worst average of 87ppb of ozone while Houston clocked in at 88ppb. Houston had 17 days over the old 85ppb limit. DFW had 12. But while Houston experienced 28 days when it was in violation of the new stricter 75 ppb standard, DFW recorded 36. A third of DFW's 20 monitors were over 85ppb. Only a fifth of Houston's 47 monitors were. Likewise, 85% of the monitors in DFW had violations over 75ppb – the same as 2011, while Houston had 87%.
 
Perhaps just as embarrassing to TCEQ as its continued failure to get DFW into attainment with old federal smog limits is Houston's continued backsliding. After a period of progress that saw it reaching compliance with the 85ppb ozone standard in 2009, things have going backwards ever since.
 
Like DFW, Space City was supposed to be on its way to meeting the new standard, not struggling with trying to meet the 15-year old one. Clean air plans for both regions to meet that new 75ppb standard will have to be drafted by the state and submitted to EPA by 2015.
 
Schermbeck said for any new DFW clean air plan to be successful, it must do more to reduce pollution from East Texas coal plants, the Midlothian cement kilns, which are applying for new permits to burn industrial wastes, and the smog-forming pollution caused by natural gas mining and processing
 
"TCEQ continues to underestimate the impact of industrial sources of pollution while overestimating the impact of car pollution. It's all about blaming drivers and ignoring the smokestacks and flares."
 
Schermbeck pointed to the fact that over the last three years, the location of monitors violating the 85 ppb limit has moved further and further east as gas drilling has moved in the same direction. 
 
After being confined to one or two northwest Tarrant County sites, the number of problem monitors has risen to half a dozen and reaches all the way into central Dallas. A TCEQ monitor near Mockingbird and I-35 violated the 85ppb standard for the first time since 2005.
 
Schermbeck speculated that the state hadn't adequately estimated the air pollution impact of new gas facilities in the Barnett Shale itself, as well those being built southeast, or directly upwind, of DFW. He blamed TCEQ's monopoly on the computer modeling that drives the entire air planning process for painting a deceptively cleaner future.
 
"Garbage in, garbage out. As long as this TCEQ is exclusively in charge of the little black box that spits out the results, you're always going to get more political answers than scientific ones. Local officials must understand this and begin to search for their own expertise. Austin just isn't a reliable source of information or advice on how to fight smog."

For most of modern history, Texas Governors haven't served more than two four-year terms and most had trouble doing that. Although they might be able to appoint a lot of folks to state agencies, current Governors couldn't re-make the agency into their own private fiefdom because there were too many members who owed their jobs to former Governors, maybe even ones from a different political party, or with different ideas about policy.

Rick Perry's never-ending-term has changed that. In office for 12 years and counting, he's managed to use time and the power of appointment to remake just about every executive branch agency the state has. And not just at the top, but deep, deep down into the upper and mid-level echelons of power. Because of the work we do, we see it most obviously with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, where Perry's influence reaches down to make sure the Chief Engineer is as ideologically-correct as the politically-appointed Chair. As a result, the Commission's science is harnessed in service to Rick Perry's perpetual campaign goals and is never allowed to contradict them.

But now that same MO seems to have backfired when it comes to superstar anti-cancer researchers who don't need the connections or positions Perry offered them.

Via the New York Times, (how come we haven't heard about this as much from Texas news outlets?) comes word that at least seven more scientists joined their former boss, a Nobel Prize winner, in walking out of Governor Perry's "Cancer Prevention and Research Institute." With $700 million in grant money, only the federal government offered more cash for research projects, so what could have forced such a walk-out?

Apparently, the researchers had the quaint idea that they'd actually be working on ways to, you know, cure cancer. Instead, Perry seems to have wanted the fund to provide another pipeline of money to his cronies in industry by focusing on "commercialization projects"  that "focus on turning research into drugs or other products that can be sold rather than financing research itself."

Nobel laureate Dr. Alfred G Gilman resigned in protest last May after the Institute voted to approve such a $20 million dollar commercialization project. Now his colleagues are leaving in droves for the same reason.

"Phillip A. Sharp, another Nobel laureate, was among seven scientists who resigned last week, writing in his resignation letter that the agency’s decisions have carried a “suspicion of favoritism” in how the state is handing out taxpayer dollars.

Brian Dynlacht, another scientist who is leaving, warned that the agency was headed down a path of systematic abuses.

“You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise — and my understanding was that the intended goal of C.P.R.I.T. was to fund the best cancer research in Texas — on account of this ostensibly new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission,” Dr. Dynlacht wrote in his letter."

Let's just be very clear about this. As long as Rick Perry is Governor, anyone who tells you a Texas state agency is an adequate watchdog for any industry, much less the state's polluters, either has no idea how state government works these days, or knows exactly how it works and is sending you down the proverbial garden path.