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EPA Downgrades San Antonio’s Ozone Pollution Status

The agency has suggested reclassifying the metropolitan area’s ozone pollution designation as moderate nonattainment, a reduction from marginal. If adopted, the city will have to adhere to new standards.

(TNS) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed downgrading the San Antonio area's ozone pollution designation from marginal to moderate nonattainment.

If adopted, the city will have to comply with a new set of air quality standards and regulations issued by the EPA in order to meet the ozone pollution standard of 70 parts per billion by Sept. 24, 2024.

A virtual hearing on this issue is scheduled for May 9, and the comment period for the proposed action closes June 13.

Since 2018, the amount of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds emitted from vehicles, construction and other sources has not fallen enough to reduce the level of ozone pollution in Bexar County to the national limit. Bexar County ended last year's ozone season — when ozone reaches its highest levels between March and November — at 72 ppb. Over the last few years, the concentration has fluctuated roughly between 72 and 73 ppb. Before 2018, the limit was 75 ppb.

"The EPA announcement does not make the designation official just yet," said Lyle Hufstetler, the natural resources project coordinator for the Alamo Area Council of Governments. "After the 60-day comment period, or very, very shortly after that, the reclassification will be official and San Antonio will go ahead as moderate."

If and when that happens, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will have to prepare a state implementation plan, or SIP, for the San Antonio area by Jan. 1, 2023. The SIP will provide an all-encompassing plan to improve air quality and meet regulatory requirements. Then, San Antonio will have a little more than a year to lower its ozone emissions to 70 ppb. While the official date is September 2024, San Antonio's ozone season is March to November, so the final calculation of its ozone concentration will be decided at the end of 2023 after a full ozone season.

"Essentially, 2023 becomes our attainment year, which doesn't give San Antonio too much time," Hufstetler said.

But it's not impossible, he said. Six previously noncompliant areas achieved attainment this year, including Atlanta, which had been in a marginal status prior to this year.

With a moderate nonattainment designation, the most notable change for San Antonio-area residents will be a new vehicle inspection and maintenance check for cars 2 to 24 years old. Existing vehicle inspection stations in Bexar County will likely incorporate emissions testing equipment, which would cost $199 a month to rent or $8,000 to buy.

For residents, this emissions test will cost about $11.50. Currently, typical safety inspections cost $7, which means the new total will be $18.50. Bexar County will have four years to implement it.

It's also possible that other regulations, which are intended more for industries and large polluters, will necessitate implementing new technologies to reduce their emissions, Hufstetler said. The costs to do so may be passed to consumers.

For example, the air pollution offset ratio will be increased to 1.15-to-1, up from 1-to-1, which means a facility that increases its emission of a pollutant in one process must compensate by reducing elsewhere by more than the increase.

Under regulations like this, and what is coming from the SIP, there could be more delays in construction projects due to lengthier permitting processes.

Twenty-three other areas across the U.S. did not meet the EPA's ozone standard by the fall deadline last year, including the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston- Galveston- Brazoria areas.

Air quality is complex, Hufstetler said, and it's not always about emissions. In April 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, while many businesses and industries were shut down or operating at reduced capacity, there were still two days with ozone pollution of 70 ppb. But overwhelmingly, scientific research and modeling shows that if a city reduces its emissions, ozone reduction will follow.

"It's going to take a very large-scale and very coordinated effort in order to get us back into attainment," Hufstetler said. "We'll definitely need to continue implementing pollution-reduction strategies."

(c)2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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