Last week, President Obama’s EPA made an announcement that will spring Texas forward to cleaner air! I love the idea of being able to run on Lady Bird Lake trail without wheezing on certain days. And, I love the idea that the number of ozone alert days could go down. The children I'd like to have someday might not have to stay inside the classroom like kids have to now on Ozone Action Alert days.
Here’s the big news. The EPA proposed an improvement to the federal clean air standard for ozone to a range of 60 to 70 parts per billion — This step could signficantly lower ozone pollution across the state! The EPA will soon ask for public comments from you. The Sierra Club is already taking action to support the new, proposed rule! After the public comments process, the rule will become finalized by August 31 of this year.
The announcement came January 7 from the EPA in Washington. Texas is going to be one of the states impacted most because despite our beautiful dream of wide open space and big blue skies on the frontier, both urban and rural Texans are breathing some of the dirtiest smog in the nation. In anticipation of the EPA’s announcement, the American Lung Association in Texas, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Texas State Legislators including Senator Kirk Watson and Representatives Lon Burnam and Eddie Rodriguez environmental groups and local citizens impacted by air pollution in our state eagerly welcomed the decision at press conferences in Austin (News8 Austin video), Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
You Don't Have to be a Doctor to Know
Why is Obama’s EPA doing this? The proposed rule revises a much less protective proposal from the Bush Administration. The Bush EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) went with a less than adequate standard (and little enforcement of that!) despite the obvious damage it would cause to our health and air quality. The ozone limits announced today meet recommendations from the EPA’s scientific panel based on 1700 scientific studies, many indicating that ozone is a lot worse for our lungs than we previously knew.
At Wednesday’s press conference at the State Capitol, Dr. Don Williams pointed out that “You certainly don’t have to be a doctor to know that brown haze is not good for your lungs.” Dr. Don compared ozone to lead explaining that we didn’t know how dangerous lead was until we found out through research. Breathing Ozone can kill. When we breathe in smog, it burns and damages the respiratory system like a sun burn might burn the skin. It can lead to further respiratory illnesses like cardio-pulmonary obstructive disorder and heart disease. According to the American Lung Association, even short term increases in ozone have been found to increase deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory problems. That’s why this new ozone limit is so important.
After the comment period and finalization of the new standard, Texas’ multi-county, regional Councils of Government and the TCEQ will create and submit State Implementation Plans to the EPA that will identify the sources and ways we’ll reduce emissions. That’s really good news for all of us breathers.
We can look at where ozone comes from. Ozone comes from nitrogen oxides (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds emitted by large industrial facilities — coal plants, cement kilns, refineries, and chemical plants, but also from smaller yet hugely numerous sources like our vehicles in traffic, heavy, off-road construction equipment, gasoline stations, paint shops, and natural gas drilling.
First Step, Halt Proposed New Coal Plants
One of the easiest ways to control NOx emissions is to go after the largest ‘single point sources’. Because coal plants create almost 35% of all industrial ozone, Texas must reverse the Texas coal rush. We have to stop building new coal plants and we have to phase out the dirty, existing coal plants. We have to and we can make a transition to clean power.
Texas doctors and nurses have been focusing more and more on the coal-fired power plants. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is speaking out because they recognize burning coal for electricity is terrible for people’s health. Along with Dr. Don, PSR spokespersons Dr. Stuart Abamson, a pediatric children’s hospital, asthma & immunology specialist spoke at the Houston press event and pediatrician Dr. Karen Lewis spoke at the Dallas event last week.
In Corpus Christi, Dr. Bruce Taylor, pediatrician, anesthesiologist and a member of the local Clean Economy Coalition spoke about the problems presented by Chase Power Development’s plans to build an ironically named ‘Las Brisas’ — Spanish for ‘the breezes’, coke-powered plant. (Coke emits NOx and is regulated like coal.) Las Brisas would put out more pollution than the 6 refineries currently operating in Corpus Christi combined including 3,776 TONS annually of ozone-forming, asthma-causing NOx. Just up the coast, citizens and elected officials are looking closely at the proposed White Stallion coal plant, planned in Matagorda County just south of the Houston-Galveston ‘non-attainment’ area. Las Brisas and White Stallion would add up with the 9 other proposed coal plant projects in Texas to equal 27,013 TONS per year of additional NOx in our air. That’s why Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and local environmental groups and individuals around the state are fighting these new coal plants. Placing a moratorium on any new coal plant permits and reconsidering all recently permitted coal plants would be one easy way to help meet the new ozone standard.
DMN to Perry: Get Over It
This week, Governor Rick Perry and the TCEQ continued to fight the Obama Administration’s clean air and climate protection plans while editors at the Dallas Morning News want Perry to get over it. They want the state to now ‘get started on a serious ozone reduction strategy.’
A reporter at the Austin press conference asked a good question, ‘What will make Texas local and state government clean-up the air?’
Good question. If you ask me, the reason coal plants have been polluting Texas is because the Bush Administration EPA failed to act, and the TCEQ under Governor Perry’s appointees went right along. We have a new administration now and a new EPA that is willing to enforce the law to protect public health. What can happen? For one thing, the EPA has the ultimate say over the State Implementation Plan so EPA can require serious, health-based permitting plans. If regions around the State don’t reach ‘attainment’ of the clean air standards, they can lose federal highway funds for one thing.
Clean Energy Solutions
Texas is now at an energy crossroads. Businesses are looking for clean energy solutions. The Texas energy industry can seize this huge opportunity to turn away from coal and create green jobs and wealth by building their part of the new clean energy economy. We have the smarts in this energy savvy state. Texas received more money for energy efficiency programs like home weatherization than any other state in the country after New York. We have the renewable power resources. Texas generates more wind power than any other state in the nation, and we have incredible solar power resource.
Sierra Club, other environmental groups, and our partners in the medical community applaud the EPA for taking this step in the right direction. The only way we’ll get our cities back into attainment of the clean air standards is to stop any new coal plants from being built, and to phase out and shut down some of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants. We are calling on the EPA to halt the permitting of any new coal plants in the state of Texas and to help TCEQ prioritize which of the dirtiest old coal plants to phase out first.
State Legislators are ready to take action. As Senator Kirk Watson said at last week’s announcement, “Our goal…should be to make sure that we all get the air we need to breathe well, have fun, work productively, and keep our region competitive with areas that can offer companies and workers unmistakably clean air. Non-attainment isn’t something to be afraid of.”