The federal government announced stricter standards on ozone smog Thursday, raising ire among business groups and Republicans but relieving anxiety among Waco-area leaders.
The Environmental Protection Agency will require urban areas to keep their peak ozone levels under 70 parts per billion, down from 75 ppb now. The EPA said the new standard would protect people from dangerous ozone pollution, which can damage lungs and trigger asthma.
Environmental groups and the American Lung Association expressed disappointment in the new standard by the EPA, which had considered a range as low as 60 ppb.
Waco-area officials had voiced worries that a low standard would put the metropolitan area into “noncompliance” with the federal Clean Air Act and force local governments and businesses to follow a costly plan for reducing emissions. The Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metropolitan areas have been in nonattainment for years, and the new standard could add San Antonio to that list.
But Waco’s most recent average peak ozone level, measured over three years, is 67 ppb, well under the new standard, said Chris Evilia, a Metropolitan Planning Organization director involved in regional air quality efforts.
“It’s very good news for us,” he told the MPO board at a meeting Thursday. “This gives us a little bit of breathing room.”
Because ozone attainment is measured over a three-year period and the last few years have been relatively good ones, Evilia said, the area is probably safe for several more years. Even if the ozone monitor stationed at Texas State Technical College shows high readings for the next three years, it would take another couple of years for the federal government to declare Waco a nonattainment area.
Evilia said ozone levels here and elsewhere in Texas are gradually dropping because of improvements in car and truck emissions. Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxide, created by burning fossil fuel, mixes with volatile organic compounds on hot, sunny days. Factories, power plants, cars and oilfields from hundreds of miles away can contribute to Waco’s ozone smog, depending on wind direction, Evilia said.
Waco’s attainment status is an important advantage in recruiting new industry, said Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s a huge part of our economic development strategy,” she said. “It really impacts the types of business we would bring to the community. Even basic manufacturing operations have to get some kind of air permitting requirements. If the standard is lowered to the point we are in nonattainment, it becomes harder for businesses to go through the permitting process.”
Evilia said the mandates for reducing ozone pollution vary from city to city, but they could include mandatory vehicle testing, reformulated gasoline, and emissions controls on factories.
In addition, transportation planners would likely have to do a complex environmental assessment on every new road project to ensure that it doesn’t contribute more ozone pollution. Evilia said that would require him to hire more staff. He said he believes pollution can be curbed without such measures.
“Right now, everything is voluntary, and that’s what serves us best,” he said.
Evilia said the closure of two outdated power plants in eastern McLennan County has helped curb local nitrogen oxide emissions. Meanwhile, the Owens-Illinois glass-making plant on Beverly Drive has added emissions controls as part of a $74 million expansion.
In a news release, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-College Station, condemned the new standards, stating that they would harm economic development in McLennan, Travis and Brazos counties.
‘Moved the goal posts’
“Once again, the Obama administration has moved the goal posts and imposed new regulations without fully considering the negative impacts they will have on our economy and hardworking American families,” he said. “They continue to lowball their regulatory costs while exaggerating the potential benefits. The administration has also yet to prove that lower ozone levels will improve health.”
The administration lowered the standard under pressure from lawsuits by public health groups, which argued that the existing standards were not based on scientific evidence.
Cutting ozone emissions to 70 parts per billion would cost industry about $1.4 billion in 2025, the EPA said, far below benefits estimated at $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion annually.
Aiming to smooth the transition, the EPA plans to give states that have the most ozone until 2037 to come into compliance. But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said most of the U.S. won’t have to take any action, thanks to existing pollution programs and previous EPA limits on pollutants such as mercury and carbon dioxide that have the side benefit of reducing ozone.
The EPA said only 14 U.S. counties would likely fail to meet a standard of 70 parts per billion in 2025, a figure challenged by business groups and Republicans.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.