Keep It Clean, San Antonio: Our Air, Our Health

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
View from Omni Hotel

A cold morning in San Antonio, 10 miles from downtown. Iris Dimmick.


One of the most ambitious goals voiced by the citizens of San Antonio and documented for SA2020 in 2011 is also one of the most reasonable: Improve air quality.

Blue skies are as well-known in Texas as bluebonnets. Claims to clean air are as sure a birthright as listening to Willie and Waylon. This is Texas.

So when the great citizens of Texas’ last great clean air city take a stand and say we need to make our good air better for breathing, there’s nothing wrong and everything right with that demand.

But the fact is, the San Antonio region is perilously close to having the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate the city as “nonattainment,” the name you give to just another dirty air city like LA, or Denver … or Houston and Dallas.

From SA2020's Environmental Sustainability section. Graphic courtesy of

From SA2020’s Environmental Sustainability section. Graphic courtesy of

Do we want to get it right? After all, there is no folding and leaving the game – we live here.

The only real answer can be: Get it right and keep it right.

And if we don’t? The federal Clean Air Act provides federal enforcement mechanisms and planning requirements they’ll impose here if we fail to keep our air clean.

Program Manager Robert Gulley and the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan folks were able to put their heads together and come up with a plan that kept the feds from coming to town to do our water planning work for us. If this kind of  strategic governance can be achieved in the realm of water management and conservation, why can’t the same be accomplished managing regional air quality?

The real fundamental reason to clean up our air is breathtakingly simple: Breathing this garbage is just bad for our health.

Those are two pretty good reasons.

View from Omni Hotel

A cold morning in San Antonio, 10 miles from downtown. Iris Dimmick.

In the San Antonio area, air quality planners like me only have one serious air pollutant in mind: ground-level ozone.

When ozone, a naturally occurring gas, resides in the upper atmosphere, it serves as a shield from the harmful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. This is “good” ozone, and the erroneously named “ozone hole” was addressed with the Montreal Protocol in 1987 when 187 countries, including the Unites States, agreed to “phase out production and use of ozone-depleting substances … If (these countries) stop producing ozone-depleting substances, natural ozone production should return the ozone layer to normal levels by about 2050,” according to an informative primer from the EPA, “Ozone: Good up High, Bad Nearby.”

Urban smog is made up of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Graphic courtesy of the EPA.

Urban smog is made up of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Motor vehicles and industrial/commercial processes make up a majority of NOx and VOC production. Graphic courtesy of the EPA.

“Bad” ozone is basically what makes up urban smog – it’s “emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources.”

According to the EPA:

“About 25 million people, including 7 million children, have asthma and over 12 million people report having an asthma attack in the past year. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”



Some San Antonians already recognize that breathing ozone is a threat. Evidence? The air quality goal supplied voluntarily by our citizenry and recorded in the Natural Resources and Sustainability Vision Area (page 74) of the SA2020 Final Report is:

  • Target: Maintain EPA Attainment Compliance; Improve Air Quality by 10% (Ground Level Ozone).

I applaud and support their assessment 100 percent.

Those same folks need to know that, right now, we are in violation of the federal national ambient air quality standard for ground-level ozone, and that we’ve got a tough hill to climb to work our way out before we are declared in “nonattainment.” Our three-year average (2009 -2012) of ground-level ozone violated the EPA’s 76 parts per billion (ppb) standard with a level of 80 ppb in 2012. Now is the time for action.

AACOG logoThey also should also know that there is a group of local elected officials working in the Air Improvement Resources Committee that convenes quarterly at the Alamo Area Council of Governments and that has taken on the noble charge of local air quality planning, at least until – or unless – we officially fail and the federales take over the process.

No elected official worth his or her salt is going to stand idly by while we slip into nonattainment, as a public health risk to our citizens, and at the risk of lost economic development. Even if the dead have a long history of voting in Texas, we all want our family and friends alive and on their feet, strong and healthy, not on a respirator.

Did someone say economic development? Here’s a salient and supportive tidbit. In a 2003 commentary, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Mitchell Schnurman wrote:

“Toyota scratched the Metroplex off its shopping list early, the first time we’ve lost a high-profile project strictly because of air quality, according to several economic development officials. That’s ominous, unless we’re satisfied with simply growing the service side of the economy.”

In other words, Toyota did not even consider north central Texas as a home for the Toyota plant that is now in San Antonio because Dallas-Fort Worth was already in nonattainment for ozone.

Some may contend that even without Toyota, a key and welcome member of our south central Texas familia, a sterling Lone Star in the San Antonio constellation, we would still be fine in terms of our resistance to the economic doldrums suffered by the rest of the United States and our outlook would be ever San Antonio Rose-y.

Since the Toyota manufacturing facility and all of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc.’s local suppliers opened for business, the transportation segment (aerospace and motor vehicle) grew to provide 31.5 percent of all of San Antonio’s manufacturing in 2011. According to a study published in 2012 by the San Antonio Manufacturers’ Association and the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, growth in the transportation segment has helped push manufacturing to become the third largest economic generating sector in San Antonio, contributing some $22.5 billion to the local economy in 2011.

Manufacturing economy graph 060813_PieChart-Illustration-1

Look with me to the future, not the past. Look with me to the choices we have before us.

Let’s budget pollution to be able to afford growth. We may not be able to get back to the Garden of Eden’s pristine air quality, but we sure can’t continue business as usual, either, without suffering nonattainment and greater health risks to us all.

If we make adequate and appropriate reductions in pollution, we can both keep our citizens healthy and provide a buffer for industrial and economic growth without violating air quality standards. It’s a matter of budgeting, as is required in any other economic consideration.

The question is, do we have the collective will to make adequate pollution reductions in our region, in our state, and in our nation on a voluntary basis, or will we necessarily have to fail first in our own efforts and have the feds do it for us?

One way or the other, we’ve got to improve our air quality. One month from now, the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum will convene community leaders, experts and citizens at the Rackspace Castle to further explore the issue and this city’s options. I hope to see you there.

You are invited to join the discussion about managing air quality at the July 11 San Antonio Clean Technology Air Quality Forum, “Keeping It Clean: Our Air, Our Health.”

Following a keynote address by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, moderator Robert Rivard will welcome panelists Doyle Beneby, CEO of CPS Energy; Dr. Thomas Schlenker, Director of Public Health, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District; Elena Craft, Ph.D. in toxicology from Duke University and Health Scientist in the Austin, Texas offices of the Environmental Defense Fund; and this article’s author, Peter Bella, Director of the Natural Resources Department at the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

The luncheon forum is scheduled from 11:30-1:30, July 11, 2013 at Rackspace headquarters, 5000 Walzem Road, 78218. Individual registrations are available through: For more information, contact Scott Storment at


Peter Bella is currently the Natural Resource Director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) in San Antonio.  He has been with AACOG for more than fourteen years.  As Natural Resource Director he provides strategic planning targeting air quality improvements within the 12-county AACOG region of south central Texas.  He is also a member of the AACOG Air Improvement Resources (AIR) Technical Committee. The AIR Committee is responsible for local air quality policy development in the AACOG/Greater San Antonio region as required to meet federal clean air standards. In addition, he serves on the San Antonio River Authority’s San Antonio River Basin Environmental Advisory Committee and is a member of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum Advisory Board. He received a BS in Physics, Magna Cum Laude and a MS in Mathematics, both from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

 Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.

Related Stories:

SA2020: Moving from Aspiration to Accountability

SA2020 Then and Now: Brainstorm to Reality to Report Card

The Greening of San Antonio

People Want a Park: San Antonio’s Passion for Hemisfair

Environmental Groups Sing Off-Key: Climate Change Problem Lost in Translation

Environmental Costs Missing From Eagle Ford Shale Reports

Eagle Ford Consortium: Managing South Texas Growth

A Wary Rancher’s Wellspring: Oil and Water

Natural Gas and Climate Instability: A Response to the Eagle Ford Shale Forum

Eagle Ford Forum II: Sustaining the Boom and Averting the Bust



17 thoughts on “Keep It Clean, San Antonio: Our Air, Our Health

  1. I’m a little confused. Doesn’t your own research strongly suggest that this increase in ground-level ozone is primarily due to the Eagle Ford Shale development and therefore out of local control? As I recall, San Antonio’s own production of VOCs and NOx has been dropping steadily.

    • Frederic, thanks for the question. We (at AACOG) are now determining what ozone impacts may be due to the Eagle Ford activity. There are at least two steps: 1) development of an “emissions inventory” of the sources of ozone precursors (the NOx and VOC you mention). Chemical reactions in the atmosphere that are driven by sunlight form ozone from ozone precursors, so we inventory ozone precursor sources, such as emissions from cars and trucks, power generation, cement industrial operations, etc. AACOG has an emission inventory for all such sources in the region that we update periodically, but the Eagle Ford is deviishly tricky to inventory because everything changes so fluidly: the location of the drill sites, the cleanliness of the technolgy used (e.g., how clean are the generators used to power the electric drill rigs?), etc. I would note we have had the collaboration of technical experts from Eagle Ford oil and gas producers in developing this inventory. 2) Modeling the impacts. Once we have the Eagle Ford ozone precursor emissions inventory complete, it’ll go into our photochemical model, which is a computer simulation of the formation and movement of ozone. We **need** the Eagle Ford EI to be incorporated with all the other emissions to present a balanced, complete model result. If we don’t have a comprehensive emissions inventory of ALL relevant sources, the model can’t give us good answers. Garbage in, garbage out.
      So, to respond to your question, right now our research doesn’t really suggest a conclusion about the Eagle Ford impacts. But, at the same time it is absolutely true that we see the influence of ozone from other regions of the state and nation as the ozone numbers appear on our monitors. We call the movement of ozone and ozone precursors “transport.”
      And you’re right, in the last number of years, our local/regional VOC and NOx levels have been dropping without reference to / an emissions inventory of the Eagle Ford production. However, they’ve also been leveling off. That is, for example, even as cars continue to get cleaner as the federal government rachets up the tailpipe emission standards, the population of San Antonio region is growing fast. So, when your population growth means more cars and trucks, adding those more cars and trucks can overcome that each individual car and truck is cleaner, and you can get a net increase in local emissions.

  2. I realize you need to maintain a good working relationship with the oil industry to do your job, so you have to be guarded with your statements until you have very strong evidence. However, I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that San Antonio is the problem here.

    San Antonio’s production of ozone precursors has been dropping, and the measured ground-level ozone rates have been rising.

    That means it’s most likely not our locally-produced ozone that is the problem and the ozone is blowing in from somewhere else, and gee, look, there’s a massive oil development occurring just south of here. Don’t you have evidence that the wind has been blowing from the south during most of the high-ozone days?

    We could obviously do more to improve our situation here, but we should first try to address the massive externalities spewing into the air to the south.

    • I would not suggest that the problem is any one source *alone*. It is all of these sources combined that puts us where we are.

      As to the relevance of local sources versus more distant sources, consider: one important source of NOx and VOC that you find all across the United States is tailpipe emissions from the cars and trucks we all drive. According to AACOG’s emissions inventory work, of the 184 tons of NOx emitted on average every day in 2013, some 53 tons per day comes from what we call “on-road emissions,” from the cars and trucks on our public roadways within the San Antonio – New Braunfels Metropolitan Statistical Area (the SA-BC MSA: Bexar County and the other seven counties that share county borders with Bexar).

      But the point is, let’s say we could remove a ton of NOx either from traffic in San Antonio or from traffic in Houston. Which do you think would have more impact on ozone levels in San Antonio? Your instinct probably says, remove it from San Antonio to make changes in San Antonio. And you’d be right.

      Lowering the same amount of ozone precursors here is going to lower your ozone levels here more than lowering the same amount of precursors somewhere else.

      Does that mean pollution from outside our region isn’t important? Absolutely not. Consider this note to Sherry.

      Sherry, here’s a link that proves your statements about pollution coming from a real distance and impacting us here:

      That link goes to an important test case in which the impacts of smoke plumes from severe fires which occurred in Mexico and Central America in May 1998 had significant impacts on air quality in specific areas of the United States. Bottom line, yes, the EPA did “excuse” recordings of elevated ozone levels downwind in this country due to this fire. Federal policy treating this concept has continued to evolve. In its present form it is called the “Treatment of Data Influenced by Exceptional Events” (

      So yes, we all take transport — the movement of ozone and ozone precursors carried with the winds — very seriously.

      We have to accurately account for pollution from virtually everywhere to be able to understand where our local ozone does come from, because YES it ALL does matter.

      And that carries a corollary: You have to be really careful, scrupulous, in accounting for all sources before you begin to make statements about who is responsible for what. Because if you DON’T have an important pollution source reflected accurately in your emissions inventory… garbage in, garbage out.

      Those are great questions and great comments. Thank you for them.

      I encourage you to come to the next meeting of the Air Improvement Resources Committee, the groups who wrassle with these ideas in a public setting. On July 8, at 1:30 PM, there will be a rare joint meeting of the Air Improvement Resources Advisory & Technical Committees. The AIR Advisory Committee convenes representatives from the business and industry communities in the the SA-BC MSA; the AIR Technical Committee are local technical folks, many of whom are staff of local governments or local agencies, like the Metropolitan Planning Organization, with work that has air quality implications. They’ll be meeting together in advance of a July 24th meeting with the AIR Executive Committee, representatives from local municipal and county governments, which will review the Path Forward letter to be sent to the US Environmental Protection Agency on July 25. The Path Forward letter will carry a list of control strategies — all voluntary — which are being enacted now and in the near future to help lower ozone here.

      And of course, on July 11, we’ll have the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum at Rackspace, which I talked about above.

      If you’re new to these ideas and want to know how they’re being handled… come on down! There’s LOTs of ways to participate and learn more AND have your say.

  3. My concern exactly, Mr. Bush.
    We’ve got refiners in Corpus to our south. We’ve got Houston to our east.
    And the article already pointed out the situation in the Metroplex to our north.
    Also, there’s Mexico & all of their pollution. During sugar cane field burning season the sky over San Antonio is completely brownish gray. No blue at all for weeks. My allergies go off the chart while that’s going on.
    Pollution is more than regional. It’s interstate and international. What’s the plan for dealing with all of that?

    • I hope you saw my response to Frederic Bush above. I wrapped in a response to your question.

      And, really, “the plan for dealing with all of that” is an ongoing dialogue with the state of Texas — specifically the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — about transport they can control within the state of Texas but is outside our local area, and with the US Environmental Protection Agency to talk about pollution produced in the nation but outside of Texas. It ALL matters.

    • I’m sorry, I don’t know about ozone and allergies. Anyone out there have data correlating allergies and ozone?

      But if you talk about other air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM), that might be different. According to the EPA, “…particulate matter, is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust particles, and allergens (such as fragments of pollen or mold spores).” (See

      Anecdotally, some people do link them. See “Austin allergy sufferers affected by Mexican fires,” by Jim Bergamo, in Austin, May 20, 2013:

      Notice that in my response to Sherry within my response to Frederic Bush (!), I cited a source such that fires can cause ozone problems AND here, maybe fires can cause PM that causes your allergies to act up!

      Really, you’d have to ask your trusted physician to what ***degree YOUR*** allergies are affected by what levels of pollution. But you can see there’s reason to think it might be so!

  4. I see that some people still hold a bit of bias for the Eagle Ford Shale. The oil fields are just a small part of the equation of air quality. Hey, the wind causes air quality to change so let’s blame the wind too. Silly, yeah I know. Blaming the Shale for air quality issues while several other factors are involved is pretty silly too.

    • David, thanks for the PDF. I really enjoyed the overview, especially slides 9 and 10. The idea of the stability or instability of the atmosphere is critical… when an inversion caps pollutants down near the ground and the stable, still atmosphere keeps the pollution from mixing and blowing away, that’s often when you’re in for trouble.

      You might be interested in looking at some work we did a few years ago to determine mixing heights near the New Braunfels airport. It’s useful to us in our ozone modeling work because the mixing height can be so determinative in ground-level ozone concentrations, as you might guess. Here’s the final report from our study that I hope is interesting:

      We’d love to keep instruments like this active in the region, but it takes resources we don’t often have. This was the result of a fortunate collaboration between a host of partners discussed in the report.

  5. It’s really true. It’s ALL sources. And check these out:

    “A New East Asian Import: Ozone Pollution,” By Douglas M. Main, New York Times, March 6, 2012:

    That article is based on this:
    “Transport of Asian ozone pollution into surface air over the western United States in spring,” Journal Of Geophysical Research, VOL. 117, D00V07, 20 PP., 2012; doi:10.1029/2011JD016961

    So you can see what I mean in that pointing the finger at any one source doesn’t tell the story very accurately. But it is true that, to create reductions, you have to make cuts somewhere! We try to start with cost considerations (how many $ for how many tons of NOx reduced) coupled with location (if the source is downwind somewhere, making reductions there won’t help us solve our problem) and impacts (how much will it move the ozone needle?).

  6. Mr Bella: I see that you just announced that you expect the Eagle Ford Shale development to cause an increase between 2 and 7 ppb in Bexar County. In light of that finding, which you must’ve had sitting in your pocket when you published this article, given how long these studies take, I don’t understand why you gave me flack for my earlier comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *