Energy & Environment

Harris County is now violating newly-revised federal air quality standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened the federal standard for fine particle air pollution, resulting in Harris County being deemed a “nonattainment area.”

This Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, photo taken from upper Galveston Bay shows the Exxon Mobil Baytown refinery and chemical plant in Baytown, Texas. On Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, federal officials said that Exxon Mobil settled violations of the clean-air law with the Trump administration by agreeing to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty and spend $300 million on pollution-control technology at plants along the Gulf Coast. The plants are in Baytown, Beaumont and Mont Belvieu, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As part of the settlement, Exxon will spend $1 million to plant trees in Baytown.
This Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, photo taken from upper Galveston Bay shows the Exxon Mobil Baytown refinery and chemical plant in Baytown, Texas.

Harris County is now violating federal air quality regulations after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday tightened nationwide standards for fine particle air pollution.

Under the EPA’s newly revised standards, a region’s allowed annual threshold of pm 2.5 pollution — also known as soot — will be reduced from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms. These incredibly small particles can travel deeply into a person's lungs and potentially worsen medical conditions like asthma and heart disease.

The revised policy places Harris County into nonattainment status because the region measured 11.4 micrograms of fine particle air pollution from 2020 to 2022. This will force leaders to lower soot levels throughout the county, which is home to a large number of refineries and other industrial facilities — some of which already struggled to maintain previous federal standards.

The EPA estimates the new standard will to prevent about 4,500 deaths each year across the nation and expects about 99% of U.S. counties to be meeting the new standard by 2032. According to Jennifer Hadayia, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, the EPA’s policy change is a “true win for public health.”

“As a result of coming into compliance, it means we reduce air pollution and that means people’s health improves, and in some cases, people’s lives are saved,” Hadayia said. “We celebrate this announcement. It is long overdue.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who’s previously pushed for stricter air quality regulations, praised the policy revision and added that decision is expected to impact the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's process for issuing permits to industrial facilities.

"Black and Brown communities in Harris County and around the country have disproportionally been affected by air pollution for decades," Menefee said. "Many of the facilities are located directly in neighborhoods, and these guidelines will ensure that we do as much as we can to limit harmful exposures.”

While the EPA was finalizing the policy revision last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with nearly 20 other Republican attorney generals, opposed the policy change in a letter sent to the EPA in April.

“The EPA should withdraw the proposed change,” the letter read. “The Proposed Rule exceeds the EPA's statutory authority under the Clean Air Act, fails to offer sufficient scientific evidence demonstrating a need to revise.”

Paxton’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.