State agency, industry on same page in fighting smog cuts
State agency, industry on same page in fighting smog cuts
Agency, industry on same page in opposing tighter EPA ozone limit
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, November 25, 2007
By RANDY LEE LOFTIS / The Dallas Morning News
Some of Texas' biggest industries have an important ally in trying to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from ordering nationwide smog cuts: the state's top clean-air officials.
At least four times since the EPA previewed its proposal in March, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – which is responsible for fighting ozone in smog-bound areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth and metropolitan Houston – has urged the EPA not to tighten the federal limit on ozone, smog's chief component.
The TCEQ's arguments closely match those of the heavy industries it regulates, including manufacturers and coal-burning power companies. Last month, two major Texas business groups lifted TCEQ language attacking the EPA proposal and reproduced it, sometimes verbatim, in their own comments to the EPA.
Many scientists and medical groups have concluded that the current ozone limit, set in 1997, can no longer be considered safe. They include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Society, the American Thoracic Society, the American Lung Association, the administrator and staff of the EPA, and all 23 members of a panel that reviewed the science for the EPA.
The experts' consensus indicates that people in urban North Texas are breathing dirtier air, with a higher risk of lung damage, asthma episodes, heart attacks and even death, than state smog-fighting plans assume. It also indicates that none of the strategies tried so far – ranging from cuts in industrial pollution to voluntary carpooling – is providing deep enough reductions to make the region's air safe.
However, the Texas environmental commission's chairman and his predecessor, both appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, have told the EPA that those experts are wrong. The agency's executive director and its chief engineer, the official in charge of air quality and toxicology, also have delivered that message.
They have urged the EPA to consider costs when setting a new ozone standard, which would be against federal law. They also have argued against a tighter standard using scientific objections that experts have called misinformed.
"In summary, I do not believe that lowering the ozone standard would improve public health in Texas," TCEQ chairman Buddy Garcia wrote to EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson on Sept. 25. "Given the existing scientific debate and the extreme economic impact and obvious difficulties in meeting a new standard, I encourage EPA to maintain the current standard."
Previous TCEQ chairman Kathleen Hartnett White used nearly identical language in an April 19 letter to Mr. Johnson. TCEQ toxicologists wrote the scientific critiques in the officials' letters, said chief engineer David Schanbacher.
The EPA reviewers, drawn from 16 universities, four research centers and two consulting firms, examined medical research and concluded that "there is no scientific justification" for maintaining the current standard. The panel felt so strongly that it put its recommendation for a much lower standard in italics.
"I was frankly surprised at how unanimous the views were [among the panelists] that we need to lower it," said Dr. Rogene Henderson, chair of the panel and of the EPA's main Clean Air Science Advisory Committee.
"Of course, part of the consensus building is that some wanted to lower it a lot more," said Dr. Henderson, scientist emeritus at the private, nonprofit Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. "And some were right up there at the top."
But in the end, "they all agreed on this."
A court-ordered review
Under a settlement with the American Lung Association and seven other groups, the EPA proposed a new ozone standard in June, with a final decision due in March 2008.
The groups sued in 2003 over the EPA's failure to do a required five-year review of the 1997 standard by 2002.
The limit from 1997 is 80 parts per billion, or 80 molecules of ozone out of every billion molecules of air. With allowed rounding, the actual limit is 84 ppb, 5 percent above the nominal limit.
The EPA review panel examined studies on animals and people in laboratories, as well as data on hospitalizations, asthma incidence and other factors. It found evidence of health effects at and below 80 ppb. The panel called unanimously for a new standard as low as 60 ppb, but in no case higher than 70.
The panel also called for an end to rounding, so a 70 ppb limit would really mean 70, not 74.
Mr. Johnson, the EPA administrator, agreed that medical research clearly showed the need for a lower standard. However, he proposed a new limit between 70 and 75 ppb. He also solicited comments on going as low as 60 or as high as 80, suggesting he could make the biggest possible change or none at all.
Meeting a tighter standard would require North Texans to rethink the state's smog strategies and their own lifestyles, since vehicles are the biggest local polluters, followed by industries. No state plan, including a new one the TCEQ sent to the EPA in May, has yet brought local smog levels down to the current limit, much less a tighter new one.
The new plan predicts ozone above the current limit at four of nine regional monitors by 2009. Ozone levels at all nine would be higher than the EPA panel's recommended range.
Texas officials say they can't fix smog by themselves, since more than 60 ppb of ozone sometimes blows in from other states. Texas environmentalists counter that the state shouldn't blame other regions until it's done a much more aggressive job of fighting smog at home.
Health and money
The Clean Air Act prohibits the EPA from considering cost or difficulty of attainment when it sets a standard, for the same reason that a doctor shouldn't check a patient's insurance coverage before making a diagnosis. Costs and other factors are supposed to come later in strategies for reaching the standard.
That hasn't kept critics, including the TCEQ, from citing costs when trying to talk the EPA out of tightening the standard. Industry groups argue that reducing smog would require unnecessarily expensive changes to vehicles, fuels, electric generating and manufacturing.
"I think it's a pretty big deal [for the Texas economy] because we have about a third of the manufacturing capacity in the United States right here in Texas, and most of the things we manufacture have some impact on ozone," said Mary Miksa, a lobbyist for the Texas Association of Business.
"And we use electricity. We use a lot of electricity. You can't produce electricity – unless you do it with nuclear – [without] generating some of the precursors to ozone."
Wind power is an exception, however.
TCEQ officials have made the same argument. "A new lower standard in the range being considered by EPA ... will have a significant negative consequence to the economy of the state," Mr. Garcia, the TCEQ chairman, wrote to the EPA chief on Sept. 25. "If the standard is lowered [to 60 ppb], every county in Texas with an ozone monitor would exceed the standard."
A top EPA official wrote back to remind Mr. Garcia that the federal agency isn't allowed to let costs skew its scientific judgment. "The administrator carefully considered the full body of available scientific evidence," wrote Stephen D. Page, director of the EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.
Environmentalists argue that listing more counties as ozone violators would just tell the public what scientists already know: The air in many places, previously labeled as healthy, is actually harmful. Industries, they add, have always said clean air is too expensive.
"It's a classic argument that's been made for four decades," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
"The overarching message for the EPA is that this is all about public health. We need to do what's necessary to achieve that."
A 'not guilty' verdict?
The TCEQ offered several scientific objections to the EPA's ozone proposal. None appears more compelling at first glance than its contention that ozone doesn't put people in the hospital.
Starting with Ms. White's letter of April 19, the TCEQ has asserted that Texas' pattern of asthma hospitalizations – peaking in winter, when ozone levels are low – shows that ozone doesn't send asthmatics to emergency rooms. That would contradict many studies that link ozone to hospital visits, and thus undermine the EPA proposal.
The asthma hospitalization pattern, TCEQ officials said, seems to be a uniquely Texan phenomenon, probably due to the state's combination of weather and emissions sources. Ms. White wrote to the EPA that the pattern was "an example of how Texas is different from the rest of the U.S." and cited it as "indicating that ozone is not a significant contributor to asthma hospitalizations."
The TCEQ's Mr. Shanbacher repeated the argument at an EPA hearing in Houston on Sept. 5. TCEQ executive director Glenn Shankle's formal comments on the EPA plan, dated Oct. 9, also cited it.
Language identical to that in Mr. Schanbacher's September testimony later appeared in letters to the EPA from the Texas Association of Business on Oct. 8 and from the Association of Electric Companies of Texas on Oct. 9.
Mr. Schanbacher said in an interview that he was not aware of a winter peak in asthma hospitalizations being found anywhere else. "I think other states don't keep as good hospital records as Texas," he said.
Actually, the seasonal pattern has been found everywhere it's been studied – "in countries as environmentally, economically, culturally and socially different as Trinidad, Norway, Hong Kong, the United States, and England," researchers wrote in a 2001 study published in BMC Health Services Research, a peer-reviewed online journal.
The winter-peak pattern is common knowledge among asthma researchers, said Dr. Eric Crighton, the study's chief author. His paper cited more than a dozen other studies published since 1984 that found the same seasonal trend.
"Rural, urban – if you go to someplace like northern Ontario, where ozone is certainly not a problem, you'll find this same pattern," said Dr. Crighton, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Ottawa. "You go to deserts, to unindustrialized [places] – you name it."
The immediate cause of most winter asthma hospitalizations, he said, is almost certainly viruses, which spread among children when school starts and are then passed on to their families and others. Asthma hospitalizations match school dates so well, Dr. Crighton said, that it's possible to tell when semesters start by looking at admissions.
The winter asthma peak doesn't exonerate ozone at all, he said, because lung damage from long-term exposure to ozone, even in amounts once thought safe, puts asthmatics more at risk from other threats such as viruses.
"To eliminate ozone as a determining factor is naïve," Dr. Crighton said. "I wouldn't say that ozone is responsible for the hospitalizations at that time specifically. But I think ozone is leading to other weakened immune systems, lower lung function in general."
Dr. Henderson, the head of the EPA's ozone review panel, concurred. The panel members knew about the winter-peak asthma pattern when they called for a dramatically tighter ozone standard, she said.
"They took into consideration seasonal differences and co-pollutants and other confounders of the data," Dr. Henderson said. "So the panel took those things into account in doing the analysis."
When asked to respond to the TCEQ's argument on hospitalization patterns, Dr. Henderson replied, "Surely they didn't say that it was unique to Texas. That's not too astute, is it?"
The TCEQ's Mr. Schanbacher defended the agency's position, which he said came from a review by the agency's toxicology staff.
"Our toxicology guys reviewed the studies," he said. "It was their conclusion. I will stand by the conclusions of our professionals."