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 Downwinders At Risk - Articles: March 2005

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

EPA proposes settling lawsuit over area air

By Scott Streater
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed settling a contentious lawsuit that accuses it of endangering the health of millions of Dallas-Fort Worth residents by failing to clean the air.

Richard Greene, the EPA's regional administrator in Dallas, has made what he termed an "informal" offer to begin settlement discussions in a Feb. 18 letter to Marc Chytilo, a Santa Barbara, Calif., lawyer representing the four environmental groups suing the agency.

Greene's offer includes a pledge that the EPA will work with the state to quickly devise a detailed plan to reduce Metroplex ozone. It also includes a promise that the agency will place more emphasis on cement-kiln and power-plant pollution in the region, a major sticking point with environmentalists who say regulators aren't doing enough to control ozone-forming emissions from these sources.

"We were heartened and encouraged by the letter," Chytilo said. "The EPA letter was a very positive step, and it showed that they recognize these are real issues that need to be addressed."

A resolution to the lawsuit, filed in October in U.S. District Court in Dallas, is viewed by all sides as crucial to local clean-air efforts. Since the lawsuit was filed, regional air-quality planning efforts have slowed as environmentalists, elected leaders and government regulators await the outcome of the suit.

The nine-county Dallas-Fort Worth region must comply with federal ozone standards by 2010. If it cannot, the region could suffer severe sanctions, including the potential loss of tens of millions in federal highway dollars.

Chytilo declined to say whether a settlement is near. Greene said both sides are trying for one.

"Obviously, what we'd like to see is the lawsuit dismissed and to reach agreement," Greene said. "We're working on clean air for Dallas and Fort Worth. "This is an important point in the process to achieve agreement and hopefully a resolution of the suit."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the development of a federally approved plan to clean the region's air. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for developing the plan but has not yet done so.

The environmental groups sued after the state decided to delay by as long as three years the completion of a clean-up plan.

State officials say they have been delayed by problems with computer models used to identify the pollution's sources. The problems have limited the state's ability to offer solutions for reducing ozone, they said.

One of Greene's settlement proposals would commit the EPA to work with the state commission to complete the computer models and finalize a comprehensive clean-up plan.

The state would welcome the help, said Andy Saenz, a commission spokesman. "We just want to clean up the air," he said.

Another of Greene's proposals calls for the EPA to provide federal grants for a detailed study of how cement-kiln and power-plant pollution affects the region's air.

In Ellis County, southeast of Fort Worth, three cement plants -- North Texas Cement Co., TXI and Holcim Cement -- discharged 11,680 tons of ozone-forming pollutants in 2002, according to the latest state statistics.

Ellis County's impact on the region's ozone problem was the focus of an intense political battle last year between local elected leaders and U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis.

Barton lobbied the EPA to exclude his home county from stiffer ozone regulations.

In April, the EPA included Ellis among the counties facing the stiffer regulations after studies showed that pollution from the kilns and other industry in the county blows into Dallas-Fort Worth.

"It's not a mystery as to where this stuff is coming from," said Jim Schermbeck, a board member of Downwinders at Risk, one of the four environmental groups involved in the lawsuit.

"The question is, does the state have the political backbone to bring itself to the table and do something about them after not doing anything about them for such a long time?"

Ground-level ozone
• Ozone is regulated by the federal government because it is a health concern.
• At high concentrations, it can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children and aggravate bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems.
• The main ingredient in smog, ozone needs a lot of sunlight and heat to form, which is why ozone season in Texas runs from spring through early fall.
• Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides mix in the presence of sunlight and heat with volatile organic compounds. The nitrogen oxides and organic compounds come from automobile exhaust and industry smokestacks. Trees also produce the organic compounds as part of photosynthesis.
• About 170 million people live in more than 470 counties nationwide that the federal government estimates have dirty air. SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Scott Streater, (817) 390-7657