After months of anticipation, San Antonio residents and local leaders can finally breathe. The Environmental Protection Agency has indicated Bexar County’s ground-level ozone levels, commonly known as smog, are not high enough to merit a "nonattainment" designation.
Counties are classified nonattainment when their ozone levels are higher than what the EPA deems safe — around 70 parts per billion. High ozone levels can pose health risks, and affect overall air quality.
Being classified in nonattainment would have placed San Antonio at risk of losing an estimated $1 billion each year we remained in nonattainment, according to director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments Diane Rath. Local businesses would’ve had to go through a more strenuous permitting process to ensure new or existing projects wouldn’t contribute to the city’s pollution.
The news came in a December 22 letter from the EPA to Governor Greg Abbott, in which the agency listed 18 Texas counties primarily in the Dallas and Houston areas, that will be classified as nonattainment.
Although Bexar County is not mentioned in the letter, it indicates that the EPA intends to classify all other areas in Texas that were not previously designated as in attainment or unclassified — for now, at least. In the letter, the EPA also asks the state to provide more current air quality data by February 28, 2018, before they make final designation decisions for Texas.
With Bexar County potentially being designated in attainment or unclassified, San Antonio will remain the largest city in the country with ozone levels below what the EPA allows— a proud point local leaders often bring up when stressing the importance of a nonattainment designation. According to Rath, the city's attainment designation is the only reason the Toyota plant is based in San Antonio, as opposed to other metropolitan cities, because they were in nonattainment.
Since October, city and county officials have braced themselves for an EPA smackdown (in the form of stringent regulations and costly permits) for not meeting the EPA’s ground-level ozone 70 ppb standard. In June 2017, Bexar County’s air quality monitors were marking the city’s ozone level at 73 ppb.
Aside from the cost associated with high ozone levels, city officials were looking for ways to lower ozone exposure to improve the health of the community.
Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger estimated that if the San Antonio region saw a 2.2 percent increase in ozone, an estimated 19 more people would die from respiratory-related issues every year. In 2016, a study found that an estimated 52 preventable deaths occur annually in the San Antonio metro area because of unsafe ozone levels.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg has often pushed to improve air quality in San Antonio, telling the Current in October that regardless of an EPA designation, improving local air quality is “the right thing to do.”