San Antonio Sees Slight Air Quality Improvement, Awaits EPA Designation

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The San Antonio skyline is darkened by clouds.

The San Antonio metropolitan area’s ozone levels have decreased in recent years, but they still are higher than a proposed new national standard announced in 2015, City officials said Wednesday.

While the City considers ways to continue reducing air pollutants that contribute to ozone formation, officials are waiting on an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment of San Antonio’s compliance with the Clean Air Act.

City Council on Wednesday reviewed recent trends in air quality improvement and discussed next steps should the EPA deem the city in non-attainment.

The EPA was expected to issue designations for San Antonio and more than 30 other cities on Oct. 1. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was still no word from the agency.

The EPA in October 2015 issued a new ozone standard of 70 parts per billion (PPB), enforceable with a new round of designations beginning this month. The current standard, established in 2008, is 75 PPB.

Based on daily air samples, the San Antonio area averaged 73 PPB in 2016, slightly above the pending standard, but in compliance with the 2008 standard.

Douglas Melnick, the City’s chief sustainability officer, told Council that local ozone levels have steadily dropped since 2013 thanks to a variety of air pollution reduction efforts in the public and private sectors.

“There’s been a misperception that our overall air quality is getting worse when it is getting better,” Melnick said.

The EPA announced in June it would push back the designation announcements to October 2018, but reversed its course after several attorneys general and environmental organizations filed lawsuits.

That move spurred Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in September to seek an “unclassifiable/attainment” designation, or a deference on initial designations until the agency receives more data on local pollution emissions.

Even though San Antonio is the largest U.S. city still officially meeting federal air quality standards, City Manager Sheryl Sculley told Council on Wednesday officials have been expecting a non-compliance tag for some time.

“We’ve been hovering around the threshold of these requirements for many years,” she said.

According to Melnick, the EPA could tag San Antonio in “marginal” non-attainment, based on an ozone reading range between 71 and 80 PPB. If it does, three measures could help get the area back into attainment in three years in order to stave off more stringent and costly requirements.

First, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) could compile a list of current and planned transportation projects and ensure they would not compound local air quality issues.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) could inventory area emitters – mainly large manufacturers – and their periodic reporting of their emissions.

Finally, TCEQ could review new sources of emitters – industrial companies moving to town or existing emitters that are expanding – and ensure they do not negatively affect air quality.

The eight-county San Antonio metropolitan statistical area’s economy could potentially lose between $3.2 billion and $27.5 billion under marginal non-attainment status, and between $7.1 billion and $36.2 billion under a moderate non-attainment tag, according to a 2017 study by the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG).

AACOG has helped study regional ozone and its sources over the years, but will have less money for future examinations as the Texas Legislature this summer cut funding for local non-governmental organizations that study ozone. Increased funding for air quality improvement measures should be up to local governments, according to Abbott.

San Antonio has done much to improve its air quality, Melnick said. In 2015, City Council approved an ordinance requiring emitters of ozone-forming pollutants to register with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. The following year, Council approved an anti-idling ordinance and a ban on coal tar sealants for roads.

However, the City and AACOG acknowledged that one major challenge lies in further analyzing specific sources of ozone outside of the San Antonio region. According to AACOG’s modeling studies, only 32% of local ozone originates from San Antonio, with the rest blowing in from other cities as well as Mexico and South America.

Melnick said the City could look at other ways to further reduce air pollution, such as going toward a fully electric City vehicle fleet, and neighborhood streetlights equipped with small air quality monitors.

Melnick and Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger said air quality improvement efforts go beyond ensuring the City follows federal clean air requirements.

Bridger outlined the City’s Breathe Today SA Tomorrow initiative and explained that health problems related to poor air quality can result in school absences for children, lost productivity for adults, and costly hospitalization.

“It’s dangerous to breathe high levels of ozone,” she said, especially for young children, the elderly, people with breathing challenges, and people who regularly work outdoors.

According to Bridger, one study shows that Bexar County could see nearly 20 additional deaths if the San Antonio area sees even a 2.2% increase in ozone levels.

But if the area’s ozone levels were to decrease 2.8%, the county could avoid such deaths and help improve the physical health of its residents. The county attributed more than 4,700 deaths to respiratory issues between 2010 and 2014, according to the same study.

“I think it’s powerful to see how a small change [in ozone levels] can make a big difference on public health,” Bridger added.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said regardless of the EPA’s pending designation, the City must continue its efforts to reduce air pollution. He is scheduled to speak at an air quality summit on Friday at the Norris Conference Center. The summit will focus on the implications on the business community following a non-attainment designation.

Nirenberg said he expects air quality to also be a topic of discussion at a public forum on local transportation issues Monday, Oct. 9, from 6-8 p.m. at the San Antonio Central Library.

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