Commissioners ask EPA for looser air standard
Bill Gill of the Capital Area Council of Governments, left, discusses Hays County’s standing under the federal Clean Air Act with Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford, right. Photo by Sean Batura.
Hays County commissioners unanimously came out in support of the loosest new ozone standard proposed by the federal government this week, though they sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week urging the agency to consider even less-stringent ways to determine if the county is in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.
The county would likely fail to comply with the Clean Air Act even at the loosest proposed standard — 70 parts of pollutants per billion (ppb) — because the air quality monitoring device EPA would use to measure compliance, located in Travis County, already has recorded ozone levels above 70 ppb. However, even if there were an EPA air quality monitoring device in Hays County, the agency still would still assess the county’s compliance by examining the highest ozone readings in the five-county Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).
“We urge the EPA to consider the populations of each county according to 2008 U.S. Census data: Travis (998,543), Williamson (394,193), Hays (149,476), Bastrop (73,491) and Caldwell (36,899),” said the commissioners court’s letter to EPA. “A non-attainment designation for the smaller counties would be not only costly, but would be a serious impedance to timely infrastructure development, job creation, economic health, and prospects for future growth. Granted there is significant commuting among the five counties for work, school, and play. Therefore, we request that some limited requirements or consequences for less populated counties be considered in lieu of an across-the-board non-attainment designation.”
Hays County officials urged EPA to apply a “secondary standard” to the county instead. The secondary standard would differ substantially from the primary in averaging time, level and form, and would be designed to mitigate a pollutant’s effect on soils, water, crops, vegetation, wildlife, economic values, personal comfort and other factors.
“As one of the smaller counties in the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area, we urge the EPA to set the secondary NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) for ozone at the upper end of the recommended range — 15 (parts per million)-hours — in order to mediate the impact a higher standard could have on a county of our size,” said the county’s letter to the EPA. “We believe this lower level, in conjunction with all regional efforts being undertaken, will protect the public health and our environment.”
The current ozone NAAQS stipulates a ground level limit of 75 ppb, a value established by the EPA under the Bush Administration in 2008 despite the unanimous recommendation of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). CASAC had advised that the limit be set no higher than 70 ppb. The EPA had never disregarded a unanimous recommendation of CASAC since the latter’s establishment in 1977.
According to Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) Air Quality Program Coordinator Bill Gill, if Hays County and other regions fell out of compliance with the new ozone standards, taxpayers would have to spend more for enforcement activities at the state and local level. Gill said there is some federal funding available for states to use in dealing with EPA air quality non-attainment issues, and he said local governments get less federal money for that purpose.
“With the new standards, they’re getting so restrictive, that pretty much all urban areas are looking at possible non-attainment — especially, if they set the standard at the lower end of that range, at 60 ppb, I think just about everybody will be at non-attainment,” Gill said.
CAPCOG is composed of elected officials representing a ten-county area, which includes those from the Austin-Round Rock MSA.
Hays County might have to initiate mandatory vehicle emissions testing if EPA declares it to be in non-attainment with the new NAAQS. Vehicle emissions inspections would probably be administered by the county and the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), a state agency.
Gill said that in the event of Hays County’s noncompliance with the new NAAQS, the state, through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), would probably not mandate special fuel additives at local gas stations, but may establish stricter air pollutant emissions rules for some businesses, like cement plants and facilities using large quantities of paint and ink. There are at least three cement plants in the Buda area.
“Dallas and Houston have been in non-attainment for forever and they still have a lot of business, so it’s not like it just runs people out of business,” Gill said. “It just may cost certain businesses. If you don’t have a lot of air pollution associated with what you’re doing, you don’t have a lot of combustion or coatings-type of operations, then it may not have that much impact on you at all.”
Gill said a non-attainment air quality designation by EPA results in the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) spending more money to do the increased administrative work required to keep federal transportation dollars flowing.
“When an area goes into non-attainment, it gets more difficult to build roads, because there is a provision that kicks in called ‘transportation conformity,’” Gill said. “And that is, you can’t build any significant roadway projects unless you’ve already got it approved as part of what they call a ‘conforming transportation plan.’ And that means you’ve got to conform with your air quality plan and you have a budget that says your emissions cannot exceed this level. And so, TxDOT and the local transportation planning agencies have to go through this process to evaluate all the planned roadways and make sure that they’re not going to cause that budget to be exceeded. Because if they do, then you’ve got a finding of non-conformity, and the EPA can take away your transportation dollars.”
CAPCOG has two air quality monitors in Hays County, one in Bastrop County, and two in Williamson County, though the devices do not meet EPA regulatory standards and are only operated during ozone season, which is from April to October.
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) drafted the letter, which expresses the court’s position on EPA’s proposed primary ozone standard range. The letter “urges” and “encourages” the EPA several times, but never recommends or demands.
Ford represents Hays County in the Central Texas Clean Air Coalition (CTCAC), which is composed of representatives of eight cities and five counties in the Austin-Round Rock MSA. Ford said CTCAC members were not able to reach a consensus regarding EPA’s proposed ozone standard. Ford said Williamson and Bastrop Counties rejected the EPA’s proposed range in favor of the current 75 ppb standard, and Caldwell County did not weigh-in.
“I think what really got my vote on this was the part of the letter that stated that the EPA needs to really look into these outside sources when it relates to emissions and smog in our community,” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley). “Because that’s out of our hands, and they need to take that into consideration and take other things into consideration before putting Hays County into non-attainment. So, I’m not necessarily happy about the new standard, and I think particularly in these times, that it should remain where it is, at 75 (ppb), but at the very least, don’t go any lower than 70, and take some of these other things into consideration to give us a real chance for attainment … We don’t contribute all that much, so why penalize us when the source of pollution seems to be coming predominately from other areas and other places within the region?”
The EPA’s is soliciting comments from citizens and elected officials regarding its proposed standards. The comment period ends March 22.
The EPA is expected to finalize the ozone standards in August 2011, and states will have until 2013 to complete emission reduction plans.
“I think everybody will certainly accept the fact that there are economic benefits from improved air quality and less health problems,” Gill said. “How that weighs out against the cost of compliance and regulation — that’s up for discussion, I guess.”