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Health & Science

Can Houston Continue to Lower Air Emissions?

For years, Houston has struggled to meet the EPA limits on ozone and other air pollutants. Now, the Obama administration wants to tighten the ozone standard even more. It’s holding three public hearings across the country — one will take place here in Houston, tomorrow. Carrie Feibel reports.



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Houston had a small environmental victory last year. For the first time, the region’s ozone levels stayed under the legal limit of 84 parts per billion. But the new federal proposal would push the limit below 70. Can Houston reach that? Brigham Daniels teaches environmental law at the University of Houston.

Daniels: “We’ve had tremendous progress with clean air. And that is despite the fact that our economic base continues to grow, despite the fact that we continue to drive more, despite the fact that more and more people live in Houston, the air is cleaner in Houston today than it was ten years ago.”

But others say that once the economy revives, air pollution will start pouring from smokestacks and tailpipes once again. Matthew Tejada directs the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention.

Tejada: “While I agree we’ve done a lot of good work in reducing our emissions of ozone precursors over the past several years, we got a lot of help — from the economic downturn, and from really some pretty good weather patterns over the past few years have kept our summers fairly free of ozone for long stretches.”

And, ozone is just one worrisome thing that Houstonians are inhaling. The Clean Air Act lists 188 compounds that are dangerous to breathe. Particulate matter is another one to watch. It gets kicked up around the Ship Channel and construction sites.

Daniels: “Particulate matter comes from a lot of stuff. It’s just very very small bits of dirt and dust, and organic compounds, just stuff in the air. Particulate matter in Houston has not reduced has much as our ozone has. It’s bad for folks that have chronic lung diseases, it’s bad for the elderly, it’s bad for your health if you’re young.”

Tejada warns that unless state and local leaders do a lot more to clean up air, outsiders will continue to dismiss Houston as a smoggy, smelly city.

Tejada: “Houston has a lot going for it. But there’s still this perception that we have air that smells like a snuffed candle. We’re dirty. We have dirty air.”

The EPA will hold tomorrow’s hearing near Hobby airport. The agency will then announce the new standard later this year. Scientists say that Houston will almost certainly fail to meet it. But Tejada says Texas should start preparing now. He thinks the state should require proof of car inspection before it gives out annual registration stickers. This would force old polluting clunkers off the roads.

Tejada: “Right now the state of Texas doesn’t make sure you get your vehicle inspected. Other ozone areas do. And hey in Texas, we even have this program that will help people with low income pay to fix their cars. Nobody knows about it though, because we don’t force those people to go get their car inspected every year. Those are the sorts of things that I’m hoping the new standard will make us start to think about.”

For more information about the hearings, visit the EPA website.