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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Houston Smog

Air Date: Week of

Houston is the nation’s smoggiest city. Texas’ environmental regulatory board has come up with a plan for Houston to reduce pollution so that it can meet EPA standards. But, as Janet Heimlich reports, some groups oppose the plan, calling it unfeasible.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Houston, Texas, the air is filthy. Houston now has the nation's worst photo-smog. That is, low-level ozone that forms from chemical reactions between sunlight and the exhaust from engines. When it's high in the sky, ozone protects us from ultraviolet radiation. But near the ground, ozone is corrosive to lungs, and poses a special hazard to children and people with asthma. Ozone is one of three principal ingredients of air pollution, along with tiny particles and carbon monoxide. Texas has a plan to bring Houston's air into compliance with federal Clean Air standards. But as Janet Heimlich reports, the state plan is generating controversy.

HEIMLICH: Texas is faced with a huge challenge. It has to show the Environmental Protection Agency that Houston will come into compliance with the Clean Air Act by the year 2007. The problem is, ozone is created from emissions from just about every fuel-burning source you can think of, from large industrial plants to cars to lawn mowers.

SAITIAS: It has been a very, very challenging task.

HEIMLICH: Jeff Saitas is Executive Director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, or TNRCC, the agency that must submit the plan.

SAITAS: If you were to stand in the city of Houston and look across the horizon and see everything that you see, and then ask yourself, "Have I identified every single place where a fossil fuel has burned?" And then further ask yourself, "Have I appropriately quantified not only how much that is emitted from that thing, but when?"

HEIMLICH: To find out those answers, the TNRCC began a $20 million study in August involving more than 100 scientists. The plan Texas will submit covers the Houston area and seven surrounding counties, and requires many people to make some big changes. Over the next seven years, highway speed limits will be reduced to 55 miles per hour. Industrial plants must reduce emissions by 90 percent. And the operation of commercial, diesel-run equipment will be severely cut back. Many say the plan is unfair.

(Lawn mowers, leaf blowers)

HEIMLICH: North of Houston, employees of Commercial Landscape Systems tidy up a church using lawn mowers and leaf blowers. In 2005, according to the state implementation plan, these workers won't be allowed to run this equipment before noon from April through October. Company owner Tom Vallecca.

VALLECCA: I think it would have a devastating effect on our business. I mean, you know, if we lose six hours a day, which is basically what that means, that could potentially be the loss of $2,000 to $3,000 a day, which over a year's time could add up to a million dollars.

HEIMLICH: Some of the seven outlying counties say they shouldn't be included in the plan because they don't affect Houston's smog problem, a notion that TNRCC rejects. Kelly Frels is with the Business Coalition for Clean Air. Mr. Frels opposes the call for a 90 percent cut in industrial emissions by 2007. He says most businesses are willing to spend the six billion dollars he says is necessary to bring emissions down 75 percent, but further reductions would be impossible.

FRELS: The technology has not been developed at this point that makes it economically feasible for all the point sources across the entire area to be able to uniformly achieve that 90 percent. If we even had the technology available, the personnel who are capable of doing that aren't available.

HEIMLICH: Many environmentalists also say their plan is unrealistic. To comply with the Clean Air Act, the plan has to show that Houston emissions will be reduced by 70 percent by 2007. But the plan only accounts for a 64 percent reduction. TNRCC officials say they'll make up the difference when new technologies are available in a few years. But environmentalists say that's not good enough. George Smith is Chairman of the Air Quality Committee for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.

SMITH: All they have is a commitment that they'll do more later. It's a big plan, but it's just not a complete plan and it may not get us to clean air.

HEIMLICH: And some environmentalists criticize the TNRCC for not imposing tight restrictions sooner. They point out that California began implementing tough restrictions in the 1960s. Mr. Smith says TNRCC officials have been dragging their feet and should have submitted the plan in 1996, when it was originally due.

SMITH: They're four years late in bringing this plan to approval. The problem is that this makes it harder for businesses and citizens to comply.

HEIMLICH: Still, TNRCC head Jeff Saitas defends the plan. He says everyone in the Houston area has to make sacrifices to reduce ozone levels. In answer to business owners' claims that technology is not available to reduce emissions, Mr. Saitas says he believes there will soon be a market for new, cost-effective solutions.

SAITAS: That's just the nature of this country. Whatever goal we set, and once we focus resources on it, we inevitably find a much more, much convenient, lower cost way of getting those reductions.

HEIMLICH: And Mr. Saitas says one reason why the agency didn't come up with such a stringent plan sooner is because contrary to what environmentalists say, it was only a few years ago that science proved how to control ozone. Yet Mr. Saitas says he's prepared for a long and legally painful road ahead. Environmentalists may sue the TNRCC if they feel the plan won't meet the federal standards. Some counties may fight their inclusion in the plan, and businesses may lobby Congress to amend the Clean Air Act and extend the deadline beyond 2007. But for now, the EPA says it intends to consider the Texas plan, and will either approve it or come up with one of its own by October fifteenth of 2001. For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich in Houston.



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