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Midlothian

CSAPR stayed

This is what the Ship Channel looked like in 1973 (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

There was some bad news at the end of the year.

A federal court ordered [last] Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial cross-state air pollution rule be stayed — to the delight of Texas officials and the chagrin of environmentalists.

The rule, which sought to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in Texas and 26 other states, had been scheduled to take effect in January. Now it will await a ruling by the court on its legal merits.

[…]

Luminant, a Texas power-generation giant, said that it would no longer shutter two units at its Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas. Luminant “intends to continue closely evaluating business and operational decisions given that this stay does not invalidate the rule, but delays a decision on its implementation until a final court ruling is issued,” the company’s statement said.

Environmentalists, who have been trying to shutter Monticello for years, are disappointed with the decision.

In a blog post, the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk wrote:

“If the rules get pushed back past the beginning of ozone season, it means all those dirty Luminant plants upwind of [Dallas Fort-Worth] in East and Central Texas will still be contributing a significant amount of smog pollution to the Metromess a year after our worst ozone summer in five years spotlighted state ineptitude in getting cleaner air.”

Needless to say, Rick Perry and Greg Abbott cheered this on and vowed to continue the fight to let polluters do whatever they want. The point of this rule is the very simple recognition that air pollution created in one state can and does travel to other states. Having grown up across the river from New Jersey’s manufacturing plants – you know, all that stuff Tony Soprano drives past on the Turnpike – I can personally attest to this. For that matter, we’ve seen this movie before right here in Texas, with the Midlothian cement plants and their deleterious effect on the air quality in neighboring Dallas and Tarrant Counties. You’d think it would be self-evident that those who create the problems would be held accountable for the cost they impose on others – this is the sort of concept we generally teach our children, after all – but not to Rick Perry and Greg Abbott. Perhaps someone should remind them what America looked like before the EPA came into existence. That’s where they’d like to take us again, and that’s why this is a big deal.

I emailed Jennifer Powis, who is running the Beyond Coal campaign here in Houston, for a reaction to this story. This is her reply:

It was very unfortunate and puts at risk air that millions of people breath. Texas has some of the worst air in the nation (I’ve attached a fact sheet above for you), and most of that pollution is generated by the 2,000 industrial facilities in our state. But at the same time, air pollution doesn’t stop at a state line and much of Eastern Texas is impacted by industrial emissions from Louisiana. Without a cohesive plan that forces states to be a “good neighbor,” we’ll continue to have problems with cleaning up the air we all breath.

There’s no doubt Texas has major air pollution problems and much of the blame lies with Governor Perry’s appointees over at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. But at the same time, this rule would have helped our state tremendously because it would have leveled the playing field for most of the Eastern states.

But don’t worry, this rule will eventually prevail. States across the nation need it in order to comply with basic clean air act provisions. Folks do a lot locally, but you also have to help out your neighbor. We’re one nation, and the clean air act recognizes that important fact.

The aformentioned fact sheet can be seen here. When you take that next deep breath of sweet chemical emissions from Louisiana, you know who to thank for it.

EPA to tighten air quality standards

Good.

Federal regulators signaled Wednesday that they would abandon Bush-era limits on smog pollution that scientists said didn’t go far enough to protect public health.

Amid concerns that the current rules don’t adhere to the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose tighter nationwide limits on ozone, or smog, by late December.

“This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health and our environment,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. “Reconsidering these standards and ensuring acceptable levels of ground-level ozone could cut health care costs and make our cities healthier, safer places to live, work and play.”

The tougher stance will likely have a profound effect on Texas, which could see more than 25 counties out of compliance with stricter, science-based limits on smog. Houston, for one, has never met federal standards despite improved air quality in recent years.

I want to pause here to note that according to the story’s sidebar, Houston has a deadline of 2019 – that would be ten years from now – to comply with the EPA’s clean air standards of 1997 – that would be twelve years ago. And that 1997 standard of 80 parts per billion is less strict than the 2008 standard of 75 ppb that was considered too lenient by environmentalists. Just a little perspective to keep in mind here.

The EPA reduced the amounts of allowable ozone, the principal ingredient of smog, in March 2008 after many scientists and medical groups had concluded the current standard, set in 1997, was no longer safe.

The current limit is 75 parts per billion, or 75 molecules of ozone out of every billion molecules of air. The previous standard allowed 84 ppb, which the agency’s scientists and children’s health experts said did not protect against aggravated asthma, heart attacks, respiratory problems and even premature death.

The scientists said the threshold should be as low as 60 ppb and no more than 70 ppb to protect millions of people, particularly the elderly and young children.

Then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said research showed the current standard to be lacking. But the science did not support a standard of 60 ppb or show enough benefit between 70 and 75 ppb.

Johnson’s decision came after intense lobbying efforts by industry groups opposed to stricter standards. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for reducing smog throughout the state, also urged him not to tighten the standard because of the potential economic cost, among other reasons.

Regions that fail to meet federal deadlines for ozone standards can lose funding for transportation projects, such as highways.

Jed Anderson, a Houston attorney who specializes in air quality, predicted that new, stricter standards will be hard to achieve because most of Houston’s ozone problem is beyond local control.

Which is why we need a TCEQ that actually enforces the law, and why Mayor White threatened to contest the permits of polluters outside of Houston that were and are fouling our air. Dallas has the same issues with cement plants in Ellis County. Without an effective compliance mechanism, there’s no incentive for these guys to clean up their act. I realize that this is only part of the problem, and that as long as Houston is as car-centric as it is it will be a challenge to meet the EPA standard, but we won’t even attain 1997 standards if we can’t get the big polluters to do their part.