Putting Off the Problem

From our contributor Sarah McDonald:

Usually when a problem suddenly becomes much more severe, you expect whatever is being done to solve the issue to also ramp up a notch.  For example, if a tropical storm in the gulf suddenly turned into a category 3 hurricane, hurricane preparedness efforts would increase dramatically over night.  Or if your Aunt Mildred had been sick for some time and her doctor announced that she was in fact seriously ill, you’d hope that her physician would boost treatment.  And if the EPA announced that Houston had a “severe”, not a “moderate” smog problem, you’d think that region would be required to put extra effort into emissions reductions.

Well, you’d be wrong.

Because the EPA did in fact reclassify Houston’s smog problem as “severe”, and rather than ordering the 8-county regional area to intensify their clean up plans, the agency actually extended the deadline to meet federal health standards for ozone.  Governor Rick Perry requested the change from “moderate” to “severe” – skipping over a “serious” ranking entirely. The region was supposed to have met the EPA’s standards by 2010, but now has until 2019 to come into compliance.  What’s worse, this extension is still for the EPA’s 1997 ozone standard, which is no longer considered sufficient to protect public health.  The EPA reduced allowable amounts of ozone from 84 parts per billion to 75 ppb earlier this year (which is still significantly higher than the 60 – 70 ppb range recommended by the EPA’s science advisory committee as the safest measure to protect human health  — but what do those scientists know anyway?)  Houston may not be required to meet the current standard until as late as 2030.

Now, not that I wouldn’t trust Governor Perry and the EPA with my life… But unfortunately, when we’re talking about ozone, sometimes life is exactly what it comes down to, as in this report linking ozone to premature death. Ground level ozone represents a serious public health threat, especially to children and those already vulnerable to respiratory illness.  Inhaling excess amounts of ozone can cause chest pain, coughing, and lung and throat irritation.  It can also worsen bronchitis, emphysema, asthma (the number one reason children in the U.S. miss school), and cause permanent lung scarring.

The EPA’s decision to honor Perry’s request, though perhaps unsurprising, was still disappointing to clean air and public health advocates.  The announcement prompted Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, to ask “What are we doing here? We’ve just done a bureaucratic dance, and we’re not any closer to clean air.”

Well said, Matthew.  Just cough it up as another example of excessive industry influence and our government failing to protect public health as much as it does big business.

Thankfully, the City of Houston is moving of its own accord to reduce smog by 16% by 2010 as a part of its newest plan to fight global warming.  Houston recently announced a detailed plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming by buying renewable energy and hybrid fleet cars, replacing light bulbs, and increasing energy efficiency in buildings.  Though the city’s plans may be rather conservative, with a goal to reduce GHG emissions to 11% below 2005 levels by 2010, at least they have set a concrete benchmark to work toward. It just goes to show the important role local governments have to play as state and federal agencies continue to drag their feet on global warming and clean air issues. If Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation, can join other major Texas cities such as Austin and Arlington with its own climate change program, perhaps the state and federal government won’t be much farther behind.

Note: Since this post was written, a rather heated discussion on the double bump up occurred during the Policy Module panel discussion at the Houston Air Conference.  As one member of the panel bemoaned the public’s conception that air quality in Houston was always getting worse when improvements really were being made, Elena Marks, Director of Health Policy for the City of Houston, stepped in to say that perhaps incidents such as the EPA’s recent reclassification had confused people.  There may have been a hint of sarcasm in her voice, and it also might have made me pretty proud that this was the woman that has oversight of the City’s Office of Environmental Programming.

Then David Schanenbacher, Chief Engineer of the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, claimed that the last two years had seen enormous improvements in ozone levels, and that Houston is in fact very close to that 1997 level (never mind that the last two years have seen unusually cool, rainy, and windy summers – conditions that limit the formation of ozone).  Schanenbacher also announced that the bump up was a mistake and his fault because two years ago he had thought it impossible the city would be able to meet compliance by 2010.

Something about this turn in the conversation smelled a little funny, and seeing as we were in a sealed, air-conditioned building, you couldn’t even blame it on the air this time. It sounds like Houston might have bought itself an extra decade for nothing.  When Perry requested the extension just last year, he told the EPA that the region wouldn’t even be able to come into compliance if all activity along the Houston Ship Channel was shut down.  But now Schanenbacher at TCEQ is claiming that we’re very close to meeting the 1997 level, and that the bump up was a mistake?  If he’s correct, industry may be getting the green light to rest on their laurels. Either Perry was wrong, and gave industry another 10 years to get its act together (and left us citizens with another 10 years of hazardous air pollution), or Schanenbacher is painting an overly rosy picture (funny, considering pollution causes those nice pink and red sunsets we get around all the time).  I suspect a little of both.

For some more reading on this subject, see the news articles below:
Houston taking on global warming
Mayor plans to reduce greenhouse gases by 2010

By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 3, 2008

Houston’s smog plan gets room to breathe
Area’s clean air deadline now delayed to 2019

By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 2, 2008