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Monday, August 5, 2013

By Glenn Evans
Longview News-Journal

Ozone season officially begins each Memorial Day, but Northeast Texas is fast approaching the dog days of smog creation.

"My concern is, come about mid-August, we’re going to be in a world of hurt from the heat index, dryness and lack of winds," Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said, describing the classic conditions for formation of ozone, or ground-level smog. "August is historically very, very hot, no wind and no rain. And those are the three main things when you’re trying to maintain attainment, when you’re on the bubble."

The bubble Stoudt fears bursting is this region’s 3- or 4-year-old attainment status with the Clean Air Act.

The five-county coalition, North East Texas Air Care, pushed down emissions of ozone precursor nitrogen oxide using a voluntary model called an Early Action Compact. Eastman Chemical Co., Texas Operations, AEP Southwestern Electric Power Co. and other local polluters invested millions in smokestack scrubbers and other anti-smog technology.

And it worked — at least by succeeding in putting the area on the bubble of non-attainment.

Good standing with the Clean Air Act prompts both public health and economic benefits. Environmentalists point to study after study showing rises in asthma and other respiratory ailments in areas such as Houston and the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the state’s two non-attainment areas.

And economic development boosters point to the loss of federal highway funding and the increased financial burden drivers could face under stricter annual inspections that come with non-attainment.

"They have a meter that hooks on the back of your exhaust," said Stoudt, who serves as co-chairman of North East Texas Air Care, or NETAC. "And if you don’t meet up (to the standard), they withhold that inspection sticker until you have some work done. That’s going to hurt the working man."

So far, so good
Ozone levels at the East Texas Regional Airport monitor exceeded the Clean Air Act’s 75 parts-per-billion standard eight times in 2012.

That’s happened twice so far this year. Five of last year’s eight exceedances had occurred by this time last year.

Those events are loosely related to Ozone Action Days, which are declared as a prediction when conditions for smog look favorable in forecasts. There were 11 Ozone Action Days in 2011, three last year and none so far this year.

Residents are asked on Ozone Action Days to refrain from driving, filling gasoline tanks or operating small engines such as lawnmowers and washing machines during the hottest hours. Vulnerable populations such as people breathing ailments or who are pregnant are encouraged to stay indoors during those hours.

Stoudt also sits on the executive committee of the 14-county East Texas Council of Governments, which on Thursday approved a series of public service announcements on ozone that will soon be heard on local radio.

A balancing act

"I truly believe all the industry around here, since I’ve been on NETAC, they put together millions of dollars to reduce or eliminate or redirect those pollutants to another process where you can take them and shove them in the ground," Stoudt said. "Is (local air quality) the best? No. Is it better? Yes. Can we do better? Yes. But, again, it’s getting back to that balancing act — how much better can you do before you start affecting the economy … and free enterprise?"

Karen Hadden, executive director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy for Economic Development Coalition, noted the need for vigilance on both the economic and public health fronts.

"We’re lucky that this year the weather hasn’t been as extreme as it was in 2011, but it’s still important to reduce zone pollution, which makes asthma worse and leads to emergency room visits for people who can barely breathe." she said. "It’s good that the East Texas Council of Governments and NETAC are looking at ways to reduce ozone. Their ideas are good ones."

Hadden visited Thursday’s council of governments meeting in Kilgore to publicize a Sept. 3 Energy Innovation Conference in Tyler. Experts, including the former head of the Texas Public Utility Commission, will be discussing how to meet future energy needs while lowering costs through green innovation at the conference.

"It’s especially important to reduce energy use during the peak hours, usually 3 — 7 p.m. in Texas, and when possible, shift the use of electricity to other times of the day," Hadden said. "For example, laundry can be done before or after those hours. Businesses and homeowners can reduce their electric bills while keeping building comfortable by increasing energy efficiency — through better insulation, lighting, and windows. More efficient appliances and air conditioning units can make a huge difference, and fans can help some in reducing the need to run air conditioning."

Stoudt agreed, but stressed that voluntary actions which have proven successful should be allowed to continue.

That feeling prompted defensive disdain at the federal government when the Environmental Protection Agency announced two things a couple of years ago: partnership efforts such as the Early Action Compact no longer would be recognized; and the 75 ppb ozone standard is going to be tightened to between 60-70 ppb.

An EPA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. was not prepared to comment Friday on the Early Action Compact question. She also directed a reporter to a section on the EPA website that says the new ozone standard will be announced in 2013.

Nationwide non-attainment

Along with the two Texas regions, 44 other sections of the country are in non-attainment. The nearest out-of-state region is the Baton Rouge, La., area.

Stoudt said setting the standard too strictly could overbalance the equation.

"We’ve been in attainment (with the Act) for the last three or four years," Stoudt said. "But we’ve been on the cusp of non-attainment. But, if you go to that (60-70 ppb) measurement, it’s going to be the whole state of Texas that’s in non-attainment. And not just Texas, across the whole country. That’s got to be a concern everywhere."

Stoudt said the whole formula determining attainment and non-attainment should be amended to address at least three areas in which this region perennially gets penalized for things beyond local control.

One is the trees, which along with cars and plants emit volatile organic compounds. VOCs are the third ingredient with heat and nitrogen oxide in ozone creation.

"Instead of getting penalized for having a lot of beautiful trees in East Texas, why not give us credit?" he said. "And then what about the 30,000 cars that come through Gregg County (on Interstate 20) every day. Why shouldn’t we get some credit for it?"

Thirdly, and perhaps most problematic, is the transport issue. Measurements at the three NETAC ozone monitors — there’s one in Karnack and one each at the Gregg and Smith county airports — prove a significant amount of ozone here is blowing in from other areas.

"These are transient particles in our area that we didn’t produce but we get penalized for," Stoudt said, before acknowledging the plausibility that pollution produced here blows into other regions. "That’s a good point. There’s probably some people around us that are getting transient particles from this area in their measurements."

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