Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Bexar County is not one of 18 Texas counties that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported it will designate in "nonattainment" with federal ozone standards. All 18 noncompliant counties are in the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth metro areas, according to a Dec. 22 letter from the EPA to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
In the letter, Samuel Coleman, the EPA's deputy regional administrator in Dallas, wrote that the federal agency intends to designate all other Texas counties in compliance with federal ozone standards, although it did not specifically mention Bexar County.
"I sincerely appreciate the EPA analyzing the unique circumstances that surround San Antonio," said Diane Rath, executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG). "In this region, only 32 percent of ozone is produced here; 68 percent comes from outside. The EPA assessed and took into consideration those background ozone levels and the influence of foreign transport" on the region's ozone level.
Some local officials had feared that Bexar County would be placed in the nonattainment category by the EPA because it was excluded from the list of counties the agency in November classified as compliant with federal air quality standards.
Rath said if public and partners uphold their "ongoing commitment to the health of region, [Bexar County] will be in compliance by 2020 and well under the limit by 2023."
The EPA did not return the Rivard Report's requests for comment before publication deadline.
In an email to the Rivard Report, Brian McGovern, media relations specialist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the organization "is pleased that the EPA has ... deferred a designation recommendation for Bexar County at this time."
The list of nonattainment counties includes Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, and Galveston counties – home to two of the state's largest cities, Houston and Dallas – as well as counties near those cities, including Collin and Denton near Dallas, and Brazoria and Fort Bend near Houston.
The EPA changed the primary eight-hour ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 in 2015 to "provide increased protection of public health," the letter to Abbott states.
The San Antonio area's 74 parts per billion average between 2015 and 2017 violates the EPA's 2015 standard, according to data compiled by the AACOG.
"We've made significant progress," Rath said. "Despite a population increase of more than one million, we've dropped 20 points since 2003 – all through voluntary measures by both private and public partners."
Those measures, Rath said, include the City's anti-idling ordinance that prohibits large trucks and buses from idling for more than five minutes, CPS Energy closing down the Deely power plant and investing in more efficient energy, VIA Metropolitan Transit converting its fleet to compressed natural gas buses, and the private sector investing in up-to-date technology that reduces emissions, among others.
"Without exorbitant expense, we are producing significant results," she said.
Ground-level ozone forms when certain man-made and natural chemical pollutants directly interact with the sun’s ultraviolet rays. A key component of smog, ozone is unhealthy to breathe as it may irritate or damage lungs.
A nonattainment status could prompt a slate of costly measures for the public and private sectors, including restrictions on manufacturing company relocation and expansion, project delays, and lost gross regional product, according to a report commissioned by the AACOG. Economic losses in the San Antonio Metropolitan Statistical Area due to marginal nonattainment could cost upward of $3.2 billion, the study found.
The first local analysis addressing ground-level ozone pollution in San Antonio, commissioned by the City's Office of Sustainability, revealed that the city would see an additional 19 respiratory deaths per year if ozone levels were to rise to 80 parts per billion, costing the local economy $170 million. If ozone levels were to fall below 68 parts per billion, the study found, it would avoid 24 deaths annually and save a total of $220 million.
"We need to improve our air quality to improve the health of vulnerable populations," Rath said. "That's what this is all about."
Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking contributed to this report.