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Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings urges state to stop playing ‘game of chicken’ with feds over air pollution

June 16, 2016

Dallas Morning News – The Scoop Blog
by Jeff Mosier, Twitter: @jeffmosier
Original article here

The Dallas City Council urged the state Wednesday to strengthen its plan to fight ozone pollution, which has been called inadequate by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The resolution was the latest in a campaign by environmental activists to build support for either stronger action by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or intervention by the EPA. Ozone aggravates lung diseases, increases asthma attacks and can contribute to or cause other respiratory problems.

The TCEQ presented its preliminary ozone reduction plan to the EPA but federal officials said it doesn’t do enough. The final plan is due to the federal government in July.

Dr. Robert Haley of Dallas speaks at a news conference outside an Arlington hearing on an EPA proposal to strengthen the national standard on ozone. (Dallas Morning News, File Photo/Staff)
Dr. Robert Haley of Dallas speaks at a news conference outside an Arlington hearing on an EPA proposal to strengthen the national standard on ozone. (Dallas Morning News, File Photo/Staff)

Mayor Mike Rawlings said the city is caught in a fight between the TCEQ and EPA. And that dispute, he said, has the potential to harm the local economy.

“We want the state to not play a game of chicken with the EPA,” he said. “Often, we do not get caught up in national politics, but this is one we’re getting caught up in a little bit.”

The risks “potentially include the denial of air permits for new businesses in the region, limiting the approval of the expansion of current air permits for businesses in the region, and the withholding of federal highway funds,” according to the city.

Rawlings said EPA officials have told them they appreciate the City Council addressing the issue.

A letter from several industry groups said the proposals endorsed by the city “would impose significant costs without providing an equivalent level of air quality benefits. State data show that ozone levels are not driven primarily or even significantly by oil and natural gas activity in the Barnett Shale region.”

The statement pointed to various reports saying the oil and gas industry has only a small impact on ozone production compared with mobile sources, such as car, trucks and airplanes. The letter was signed by officials from the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, Barnett Shale Energy Education Council and the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has been out of a compliance with ozone standards since 1991. The EPA said the state’s preliminary plan wouldn’t get the region under the 75 parts per billion limit. The area’s ozone pollution has dropped over the years but not enough to keep up with lower federal standards.

Environmentalists have argued that any solution to the region’s air problems must include reducing emissions from cement plants in Midlothian and several coal plants outside this region. They are demanding decreases in the emissions from natural gas production facilities.

TCEQ officials disagreed and said in a written statement that their plan accounted for the “relatively small impact of DFW area cement kilns and oil and gas operations as well as the power plants outside the DFW, and the high costs of requiring further emission reductions from these sources.”

A statement from Luminant, which owns nearby coal plants, also made the same argument that vehicle traffic was the overwhelming contributor to the ozone levels.

“We understand the City Council wanting to make a statement on clean air,” said company spokesman Brad Watson in a written statement. “Luminant shares the desire for clean air and that’s why all our power plants meet or exceed the rules and laws of our state and nation on emissions.”

Dallas County commissioners voted 3-2 last month to approve an ozone-crackdown resolution. That happened shortly after U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, sent a joint letter to the EPA criticizing the TCEQ’s ozone plan.

Alex Mills, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said he has a problem with the federal government setting a national ozone standard.

“That might be good for parts of the country that aren’t in fast-growth mode,” he said. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

The TCEQ also pointed out that “progress toward attainment of the ozone standard from 2000 through 2015 has been significant, especially given that the DFW area population increased approximately 35 percent during this time period.”

And even though Texas is the nation’s top wind energy producer, Mills said renewable sources aren’t feasible now as the state’s primary means of generating electricity.

The speakers and council members at Wednesday’s meeting were united in support for a reduction in ozone.

Tamara Bounds, an air quality activist with Mansfield Gas Well Awareness, said local asthma rates are much higher than the national average and a burden on many. She said it’s time for the state to stop fighting air quality advances.

“TCEQ has failed us for the last 20 years,” she told the council Wednesday. “And they continue to fail us.”

Jim Schermbeck, head of Downwinders at Risk and longtime air quality crusader, pointed out to the council that last week, this region had its worst smog day since 2013.

Corey Troiani, local program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, likened industrial pollution to cars driving around without pollution controls.

“If I did that and I got caught, I would be fined,” he said. “And if I continued to do that for 25 years, correct if I’m wrong, but I’d probably be in jail.”

Although the vote was unanimous, the tone of comments from council members varied widely.

There was harsh criticism of the TCEQ as being ineffective and likening its approach to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. There was also more moderate language urging the state to cooperate with the EPA.

Council member Philip Kingston, who made the 1984 comparison, called the TCEQ a “multi-decade embarrassment for the state of Texas.”

“It’s sad in a way that we have to do this,” he said, referring to the resolution.

Jennifer Staubach Gates, a council member and registered nurse, was also supportive of the resolution but more cautious. She said tougher regulations could drive up energy costs but could potentially lower health care costs.

“This issue does have an economic impact,” she said, “and I think we need to realize that.”

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