Wise County in, Hood Left Out: EPA Declares New Non-Attainment Area for Smog in North Texas

At around closing time came news that the EPA had finalized the boundaries of the new “non-attainment area” for smog in North Texas that corresponds to enforcement of the “new” 75 ppb ozone standard approved last year. The 9 counties that were already in violation of the older standard are still there: Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall, and Tarrant. The only new addition is Wise County, but it’s a huge one given its prodigious amount of gas industry pollution and commuter traffic to Tarrant and Denton Counties. It also means that Wise County will be getting an ozone monitor. If it’s placed correctly by TCEQ – and that’s a big if – it could be giving us a much truer understanding of how high or low ozone levels are really going. Since predominant winds during “ozone season” (April -November) are from the southeast to northwest, much of DFW’s dirty air gets pushed into Wise County, where it then officially falls off the map because there’s no air monitors there to record it. TCEQ likes it that way because ozone readings in Wise – where DFW dirty air meets gas patch emissions – could be significantly higher than in most of the rest of DFW. And that would dampen the Austin happy talk about improving DFW air quality. Also coming to Wise are things like those Vapor Recovery units on gasoline pumps, and other stricter pollution control requirements – although the impact on the entrenched gas industry infrastructure already there is unclear. Hood County was also singled out by EPA for inclusion in the non-attainment area but is left off this final order. It also has a number of gas industry facilities, including compressor stations, although most have shown up over the last ten years as opposed to Wise, which has seen decades of oil and gas production. There was no explanation for Hood exclusion in EPA’s letter. DFW wil be classified as a “Moderate” non-attainment area under the new standard while Houston will get a more severe “Marginal” classification. Why? Because the EPA uses a formula based on percentage above the new standard and Houston has traditionally had higher readings – think Ship Channel “upsets” and belches, even if DFW had just as many.  Dallas and Houston remain Texas’ only non-attainmenta areas for smog, although that could certainly change over time. Next up is EPA’s determination of the compliance timeline for all non-attainment areas. The good news is that DFW’s deadline should be sooner than Houston’s because it’s not as severely ranked. The worse the air, the more time a region has to clean it up. The bad news is that it could still mean officials don’t have to get serious about cleaner air until around 2015 for a 2017-18 deadline. That”s been the pattern up to now – keep waiting until the last minute to think about how to dig yourself out of a multi-decade deep hole. And believe us, with this process, 2 years is “the last minute.” There could be all kinds of useful planning and researching going on right now but they’ll be none of that.  Because insuring receipt of federal highway dollars, not protecting public health, has been the primary motivating factor behind the clean air machinery in North Texas. Until those priorities are reversed and clean air is sought for its own worth, we’re likely to always be behind the curve, chasing “unattainable” smog standards.