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Texas’ Proposed Plan To Reduce Haze In Its National Parks Falls Short, Critics Say

A federal rule requires states to reduce air pollution in their national parks and wilderness areas. But for the second time, Texas’ plan includes no additional emissions controls for industrial plants, which environmental groups say is necessary.

A view from the South Rim trail at Big Bend National Park on a hazy day.

Texas is required to come up with a plan to reduce haze in its national parks, but critics say the proposed plan won’t do enough to improve air quality.

The requirement is part of the EPA's Regional Haze Rule, which aims to improve air quality on federal lands. In other states, plans to address haze have often included stricter emissions controls for industrial plants, requiring older plants to implement better pollution control technology.

But for the second time, state environmental regulators at the TCEQ are set to approve a plan Wednesday with no new emissions control measures, citing cost concerns.

More than a decade ago, Texas submitted its initial Regional Haze Plan, which led to a legal back and forth between the EPA and the state over what the plan should include. Now, an updated version is due.

While the latest iteration has the approval of a few industry groups, numerous environmental organizations, alongside officials from the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, have filed comments against Texas' plan, saying it doesn't go far enough.

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Dan Cohan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, is among those who filed public comments against the proposed plan. Houston Public Media spoke with Cohan to learn more about how the plan impacts Houston and why it's likely to turn into a legal battle with the EPA again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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I know the Regional Haze Plan addresses haze in Big Bend National Park — on the other side of the state — so how does it impact Houston?

The same pollution that causes haze and obstructs visibility in the national parks is the same pollution that’s deadliest for us to breathe in our cities. So anything that we do to reduce haze also makes us healthier, wherever we live.

What are some of the specific air pollutants that it focuses on?

The main cause of haze is something known as PM 2.5, which means fine particulate matter, so tiny particles that can really be made of anything floating in the air. A large amount of this comes as sulfate particles because Texas has more coal power plants that don’t have scrubbers than any other state in the country. (Scrubbers are air pollution control devices that help remove particulate matter.)

How does Texas' proposed plan compare to other states?

I was working on Georgia’s plan 15 years ago, and Georgia and other neighboring states all made plans to require modern emission control technologies at their facilities. Texas managed to avoid doing that the first time around, and now is proposing to continue doing nothing for a decade to come.

What additional emissions controls would you like to see added?

The biggest problem is that we have several coal power plants that still don’t have any scrubbers at all to control their sulfur pollution. And that sulfur pollution is a leading cause of the particles in the air that cause the haze and that hurt our health. All new coal power plants since around 1980 have been required to have scrubbers — this is 40-year-old technology that’s just a given. What’s happened is that the 1970s plants have been grandfathered in without scrubbers at all. The Regional Haze Rule is supposed to go back to those grandfathered, old power plants and bring them up to modern pollution control levels. That’s what’s happened in almost every other state in the country, and Texas really stands alone in having resisted those sorts of scrubbers.

Do you think we’re likely to see more conflict between the TCEQ and the EPA over the latest plan?

This was a big conflict between TCEQ and EPA over the past decade when EPA kept insisting that there be a stronger plan from Texas. Under President Obama, EPA actually stepped in and issued its own federal plan for Texas after rejecting what Texas had done. But before that federal plan took effect, the Trump administration came in and wiped it out. And so we’ve been left in this limbo, ping-ponging around between what the state and what EPA wants to do. This plan that TCEQ is going to vote on on June 30 sets up the next round of that. This is another attempt by Texas to do nothing and I would not at all be surprised to see EPA reject this again, and perhaps we’ll see another EPA-issued plan for the state.

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