Responding to a court order, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday officially designated Bexar County as noncompliant with a new and stricter federal standard for ozone levels passed under the Obama administration.
The announcement prompted praise from environmental groups who have argued that the health of San Antonio-area residents is on the line, and outrage from state and local officials who say the designation — which will come with a host of new regulations — will harm the economy and also ignores recent efforts at the local level to reduce smog levels.
“We look forward to supporting Texas as they work to improve air quality and foster economic opportunity,” Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “Information provided by the state indicates that the San Antonio area is on the path toward attainment, and we expect Bexar County will be able to demonstrate that it meets the standard well in advance of the attainment date in 2021.”
Wheeler added that a state analysis of how “international emissions” from Mexico are adversely impacting air quality in the region and the forthcoming closure of a coal-fired power plant run by San Antonio’s city-owned utility “will help ensure that implementation of this standard has minimal burdens on economic development.”
San Antonio had been the largest city in the U.S. that was still in compliance with federal ozone standards. It would have passed muster under the older standard of 75 parts per billion, but the Obama administration lowered the maximum to 70 parts per billion — a standard many scientists and public health experts believe is still too lenient.
Also known as smog, ozone forms when emissions from cars, coal plants and the like mix with other airborne compounds in the presence of sunlight. High ozone levels exacerbate conditions such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease, and may even lead to premature death.
Republican-dominated Texas led the charge against the more stringent ozone standard, which then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — who resigned earlier this month — chose to delay until this year. Democratic-led states and environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, successfully sued in hopes of speeding up the process.
“This is a positive first step for reducing air pollution in Bexar County,” said Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the EDF. “It could prevent dozens of preventable deaths and thousands of hospitalizations each year.”
But she also said that “San Antonio families need EPA to do more to limit air pollution from oil and gas development in neighboring counties, which is likely contributing to the unhealthy smog levels in Bexar County.”
In a scathing statement, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it disagreed with the decision “as this action creates an unnecessary burden on the residents, industry, and governing bodies of Bexar County without any associated benefit from an air quality perspective.”
The statement noted that Gov. Greg Abbott had recommended designating Bexar County as compliant with the older standard.
“The EPA’s blatant disregard for Federal Corporatism in not supporting Governor Abbott’s recommendation shows the disconnect between states and Washington D.C.,” the statement said.
Local officials have also been opposed to a designation, but not because they — unlike the TCEQ and the state’s Republican leadership — don’t believe in the overwhelmingly scientific consensus that smog can significantly impact human health. Rather, they have argued that the additional regulations will adversely impact the local economy, including the slowing of major transportation projects.
In response to an impending designation, the city had enacted an anti-idling ordinance for heavy vehicles and other measures and vowed to continue its efforts even after Pruitt announced he would delay enactment of the new standard.
“We needed to make sure we’re continuing our progress,” Douglas Melnick, San Antonio’s chief sustainability officer, told the Tribune last year. “Regardless of what happens at the federal level, this is about the health and well-being of our community.”