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Feds Reject Texas’ Plan to Reduce Houston, Dallas Ozone Levels

The U.S. EPA disapproved the state’s ozone reduction plan for ignoring the primary focus of reducing future emissions. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston-Brazoria have long failed to attain federal air regulation standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected Texas' plans to comply with the Clean Air Act by reducing ozone levels in Houston and Dallas, saying the proposal by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2020 does not go far enough.

Ozone has been a persistent problem in the cities and can be dangerous when breathed in even at relatively low concentrations: it harms airways and exacerbates respiratory illness.

Both Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston- Galveston- Brazoria have long been considered in "severe nonattainment" of federal ozone limits introduced in 2008, which set an average ceiling of 75 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone over any eight-hour period. The two metropolitan areas also fail to meet an even more stringent standard set in 2015.

Texas was required to submit a State Implementation Plan in 2020 that laid out changes it would make to meet or approach those standards if it failed to make reasonable progress before 2027.

The EPA announced its disapproval in the Federal Register on Oct. 3. Earthea Nance, the agency's regional administrator, wrote that "the contingency measures identified by the state consisted entirely of emission reductions from measures that would occur regardless of whether the nonattainment area would fail" to make reasonable progress or meet federal standards by the deadline.

The TCEQ had no additional comment on last week's disapproval, but in an earlier written comment Erin E. Chancellor, its interim executive director, argued the decision deviated from the EPA's past decision making: states used to be able to include ongoing emissions reduction strategies in their proposals.

Though Chancellor acknowledged that a 2022 U.S. Court of Appeals decision on a similar case shifted the State Implementation Plan focus to new actions expected to change ozone levels in a nonattainment zone rather than ongoing pollution control programs, she said the agency should have reviewed the 2020 proposal more quickly, before the court decision changed the process' focus.

Chancellor said the decision "presumes that there are such measures available for states and ignores the primary focus of the statute: future emission reductions."

Ozone has two important precursors, both prevalent in Houston. Nitrous oxides (NOx) come from emitters that include factories and car exhaust, and the volatile organic compounds they mix with are released by industrial plants, paints, solvents, evaporating gasoline and many natural sources. Heat also plays a role in speeding up ozone-forming reactions.

"There's a pattern from this current EPA administration that says, 'Look, you can't just do the same thing, not hold industry accountable and expect us to say that is good enough'," said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of the Houston-based nonprofit Air Alliance.

This is not the first time the EPA has rejected a State Implementation Plan over Texas' air quality. Earlier this year, they shot down the state's proposed actions on another ozone standard called the "good neighbor" rule, which involves ozone pollution that crosses state borders.

"When the EPA rejected that, Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the EPA to stay the rejection," Hadayia said. While a D.C. Circuit Court recently ruled in favor of the federal agency in that case, Hadayia said she wouldn't be surprised if the new rejection is followed by another lawsuit.

Last week's disapproval, if not overturned in court, will set deadlines for Texas to either revise its promised actions in a satisfactory way, or face federal sanctions that would add new offsetting requirements to air emissions permits and cut highway and transportation funding in the affected areas.

(c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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