April 16, 2008
How bad is Fort Bend's air?

Apparently, nobody really knows for sure.

Sugar Land and surrounding Fort Bend County often get a double dose of dirty air from commuters' tailpipes and what's blown inland from the Gulf of Mexico, air-quality experts say.

But nobody knows for certain what they're breathing, because Fort Bend County is the most populous county in Texas without a monitoring station to measure air pollution. There are nearly 50 monitors across Greater Houston.

"It's such an obvious oversight," said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, or GHASP. "They need to know more than anybody what's in the air."


The prevailing winds off the coast force air pollution that didn't become ozone the day before to pool in Fort Bend County. Ozone, a colorless gas formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in heat and sunlight, is the main ingredient in smog. Chronic exposure to smog can damage lungs, and people with lung or heart disease may have trouble breathing.

Sugar Land is also downwind of the W.A. Parish power plant, which generates more than 3,500 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 2.8 million homes, making it the second-largest in the U.S. The plant has reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides by 80 percent over five years, but still produces more of the pollutant than any other industry source in the eight-county Houston region.

What's more, the wind-aided buildup of ozone is compounded by the homegrown emissions from cars and trucks. Fort Bend County's population has grown 40 percent to nearly 500,000 people since 2000.

"Fort Bend County bears the brunt of today's pollution and yesterday's pollution," Tejada said.

But it's unknown to what extent.


Bob Hebert, Fort Bend County's judge, said he has not requested a monitor. The smog problem is a regional one, he said, so if Houston fails to meet federal clean-air standards, then Fort Bend fails, too.

"With the exception of the Parish plant, we don't have any major polluters in the county," Hebert said. "But we have the prevailing winds, so we can't clean up the air on our own. We could close the Parish plant tomorrow and still not meet the federal standards."

I feel like I'm missing an important piece of information here. Like, how much would it cost to install however many monitors would be needed to get an accurate picture of the problem. Is it simply not feasible, or is the somewhat defeatist attitude of Judge Hebert penny-wise and pound-foolish? Someone help me out here, please.

Assuming that the cost isn't too prohibitive, I don't understand why you wouldn't want to put in the monitors. Isn't everyone better off with full information here? And even if the bulk of the problem is the Parish plant, being able to document it more thoroughly might give you some leverage to get them to do better in the emissions department. Further, having sufficient data might also help to do things like more accurately inform the county's transportation policies. I just don't understand why they're content with not knowing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 16, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston