Houston Creates New Clean Air Plan

After losing a contract with the state to inspect local refineries and industrial plants for clean air violations earlier this year, the city of Houston is launching its own new plan that Mayor Bill White says will be just as effective, but more focused

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The city had acted as a clean air enforcer of sorts for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality until August of this year, when the state refused to renew its contract because of disagreements about enforcement. Along with the contract went nearly all of the city's state funding for inspections and a good chunk of its inspection staff. Now, Mayor White says the city will embark on it's own new inspection and enforcement program that will target the most pressing clean air issues. "We are trying to identify the most dangerous of the pollutants so we can put public health first. It's not just how many people are counting things out there, but it's what they're counting and what they're monitoring and the effect to public health," he says.

The plan addresses ozone and other airborne toxins and includes plans reduce pollution within city operations, such as converting Houston's civilian employee fleet to hybrid vehicles. Arturo Blanco is the chief of the city's Bureau of Air Quality and says the new program adds flexibility that the state-funded program didn't provide. "Our goal is to establish our own protocols for response that allocate resources wisely from the perspective of the citizens in Houston, with may be different from the TCEQ-directed protocols that we had to follow before," he says.

John Wilson is executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention and says the city is doing what it can with a limited budget. "Obviously it would be better if they still had funding from the state and still could retain the full size of the staff at the Bureau of Air Quality Control, but on the other hand they have gained flexibility and a renewed focus on things that I think will matter more in the long-run than some of the activities that they've been doing," he says.

Texas Environmental Defense director Jim Marston says Mayor White's strategy is the first of its kind in Texas and could be effective in targeting real-world pollution issues that may have been overlooked under traditional programs. "We have, for a long time, said that we're going to do something here or something there and make the air cleaner and had a little results, but the air is still not as clean as we would like it to be. What he is doing is saying, I've got limited resources, I'm going to put them in places where I can get the most health-bang for the buck and we're going to work on things where we can get really short-term benefits," he says.

The new plan includes a beefed-up network of monitors, including the possibility of a mobile monitor that could be deployed to areas of the city with the worst air quality.

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