In 2015, the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency made a sweeping change in the amount of smog counties were permitted to simmer in.
Counties needed to reduce their ozone levels from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb — an infinitesimal amount in human-scale, but big enough to make a serious dent in the public health and environmental woes linked to high ozone levels. EPA officials gave counties an October 2017 deadline to lower ozone levels before they’d begin handing out costly penalties.
San Antonio was already the biggest metro region in the state with the lowest ozone levels — well below both Dallas-Fort Worth at 80 ppb and Houston at 79 ppb. Still, by June 2017, Bexar County’s air quality monitors were stuck around 73 ppb.
On October 1, city and county officials braced themselves for an EPA-sized smackdown (in the form of stringent regulations and costly permits) for not meeting the 70 ppb standard.
Nothing came. November 1 — still not a peep.
As almost an afterthought, the EPA casually released a list of counties that met the 2015 standards on November 6, 2017.
“The letter came out, and we were all very excited,” says Doug Melnick, San Antonio’s chief sustainability officer. “We all started looking at it, and didn’t see us.”
Bexar County wasn’t on the list. But according to the EPA, that doesn’t necessarily mean the county’s out of compliance. In the words of EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones, “the agency intends to address all other counties in a separate future action.” Whatever that means.
“The cloud of uncertainty is unnerving,” Melnick says.
In the absence of any obvious federal guidance from the new administration’s EPA (and reeling from recent state-level cuts to air pollution monitoring), Bexar County and San Antonio city officials seem to be the only ones left to hold themselves accountable. But with the overall health and welfare of the region’s quickly-growing population at stake, they’re not waiting around for the federal government to take action.
There are two types of ozone — the good kind and the bad kind.
The good kind, also known as stratospheric ozone, is the naturally-formed, protective bubble that shields the earth from ultraviolet rays. The bad kind, called tropospheric, or ground level ozone, is created by a chemical reaction between certain pollutants and the sun — we usually call it smog.
In Bexar County, the majority of ground level ozone pollution comes from power plants, cement factories and vehicle emissions. To be more specific, most of our ozone pollution comes from the nearly dozen cement manufacturing plants in Bexar County, CPS Energy’s multiple South Side coal and natural gas energy plants, the oil and gas drilling in the Eagle Ford shale region that sweeps just south of Bexar County, and traffic — a lot of hot, congested traffic.
According to Mario Bravo, Texas outreach specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund, ozone usually travels through Bexar County in a predictable path based on the way wind travels through the region. Fossil fuel emissions from Eagle Ford fracking drift through southeast San Antonio, picking up emissions from CPS’ coal fire plants on Calaveras Lake along the way. By mid-day, this ozone melting-pot drifts to downtown San Antonio, picking up truck and car exhaust fumes. Finally, this ozone-rich plume settles over Camp Bullis and the Dominion neighborhood. According to the region’s ozone level monitors, this area is where the levels are often the highest.
Bexar County has three regulatory ozone level monitors that are operated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency. The Alamo Area Council of Governments, which works closely with TCEQ, also oversees 12 additional monitors scattered throughout the county, which they use to gather information to assess the county’s status.
While the region’s still teetering above the 2015 EPA standard, AACOG Director Diane Rath says it’s nowhere near what ozone levels in San Antonio used to look like — despite the city’s population increasing by 1 million, San Antonio’s ozone levels have gone down from 91 ppb in 2003, to 73 ppb today.
When rating ozone levels across the country, the EPA gives counties one of three labels: attainment, nonattainment, or unclassifiable. “Attainment” means ozone levels are below the federal limit of 70 ppb, and all is well. If ozone levels are higher than 70 ppb, a county can may be dubbed “nonattainment.” The higher the ozone levels are in a county, the worse a nonattainment ruling can be, and ozone regulations become more stringent. “Unclassifiable” means the EPA needs to collect more data from a county before issuing a designation.
By the 2015 standards, Bexar County is technically a “nonattainment” region, but the EPA hasn’t officially called it — yet.
But while local government has taken the initiative to improve air quality and lower ozone levels to improve public health and keep San Antonio’s economy intact, they’ve been hard-pressed to find support from the state or federal government.
After the EPA set the new ozone standards in 2015, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the EPA on behalf of the TCEQ. Paxton called the new 70 ppb level “inappropriate and unrealistic” saying the new standard would “impose a serious financial burden on the Texas economy for the dubious public health benefit.”
Then there’s the funding cuts. In July, Governor Greg Abbott cut $6,000,500 from TCEQ’s biennial budget — money designated to help reduce ozone in levels in "near-nonattainment" areas. The cuts caused AACOG, which relies on a yearly $750,000 from TCEQ’s cut funding, to shut down six of its air quality monitors. Local environmental advocates, however, rushed to find a way to flip them back on — and secured $135,000 from CPS Energy to get them back up by August. San Antonio and Bexar County each pitched in $125,000 to fund AACOG’s planning activities to remain in attainment.
Dr. Colleen Bridger likes to compare ozone exposure to a bad sunburn.
“It’s an irritant — it can inflame the lungs, it can reduce lung function, and over long term exposure, it can permanently damage the lung tissue,” says Bridger, the director of Metro Health.
Like a sunburn, ozone exposure is the worst when the sun’s at its peak. By then, pollution from the morning commute or nearby power plants have had enough time to combine with sunlight and turn into ozone. On sunny days when the wind’s particularly stagnant, people especially vulnerable to respiratory problems (like children, people with asthma or lung disease, and the elderly) are advised not to leave their homes Even the average, healthy adult can have difficulty breathing and chest pain on high-ozone days.
In an October presentation to City Council, Bridger said 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 conducted by New York University and the American Thoracic Society found that an estimated 52 preventable deaths occur annually in the San Antonio metro area because of unsafe ozone levels. Another 2016 study found San Antonio to be the ninth worst city in the U.S. for kids suffering from gas-and-oil-related asthma attacks — by 2025, the Clear Air Task Force estimated nearly 15,500 children would suffer these type of asthma attacks yearly.
Many residents, however, don’t need to see the numbers to know the area’s air quality is life-threatening.
Shortly after Krystal Henegan moved to San Antonio in 2012, Tanner, her toddler, developed severe asthma that only subsided when they left city limits. Less than a year after moving to the city, Henegan was packing again — she now lives on a ranch just north of Government Canyon. Tanner, now 8 years old, breathed easier for a while, Henegan says, but he missed 12 days of school last year because of his respiratory problems. He now has problems breathing through his nose, on top of his asthmatic wheezing.
“It’s absolutely still a problem,” Henegan says. “I won’t let him play outside on high-ozone days. But he’s a kid, and we now have all this land to play on, so it’s frustrating for him.”
Henegan, now the Texas chapter head for the Moms Clean Air Force, says it’s “irresponsible” for the EPA to leave the public waiting.
“They’re just kicking the can further down the road,” she says. “As a mom with an asthmatic son, I want to know what’s going on.”
It’s unclear what the financial cost of greater health problems linked to high-ozone levels in Bexar County looks like, but it’s not hard for public health experts to estimate.
“Poor respiratory health makes our city economically vulnerable,” says Dr. Adelita Cantu, a associate professor at UT Health San Antonio with a focus in environmental health issues. “That means low productivity in the workplace, employees missing work … higher health insurance costs for employers.”
For taxpayers, a higher rate of people rushing to the emergency room with an asthma attack or a decrease in public school funds due to chronic student absenteeism adds up. And for employees who miss work to take their kid to a doctor’s appointment or stay home sick, it could mean lost wages — or worse, a lost job.
“Some people say, ‘Okay, I’ll have a cough for a couple of days and I’ll get over it.’ But it’s not like that for everyone,” Cantu says. “This could be a long-term problem.”
San Antonio is the largest city in the country to still be marked as “in attainment” when it comes to ozone levels — a point local leaders like to drive home when they stress the economic importance of the looming, potential “nonattainment” designation.
“The only reason we have the Toyota plant is because Dallas was in nonattainment,” says AACOG director Rath. “So we are fortunate to have the entire complex settled here with all of those high-wage jobs. If you’re in nonattainment, that’s an example of what you lose.”
According to Rath, San Antonio is projected to lose $1 billion each year we are classified as “nonattainment” — and local studies show it could be until 2020 before Bexar County ozone levels are at 70 ppb.
If Bexar County were in nonattainment, businesses would see hurdles other nonattainment cities already deal with, including being required to report their emissions to TCEQ. A strenuous permitting process for any new or existing projects would also kick in: Businesses would have to apply for special permits if they wanted to expand, and prove that the expansion won’t impact local air quality.
“Being in attainment as long as we have been, I think we’ve seen a lot of benefit, because we don’t have those additional regulatory requirements,” says Melnick. “It also means having comparatively good air quality compared to other large metro areas. We have that public health benefit.”
EDF’s Mario Bravo, who used to sit on AACOG’s now-dissolved “Air Advisory Committee," believes AACOG is overestimating the economic impact nonattainment status would bring to the region.
“They’re using it as a tool to complain against the standard,” Bravo says. He suspects AACOG’s trying convince the government that the cost of getting companies to comply with the 70 ppb standard (like investing in new technology and equipment) aren’t worth the health and environmental gains.
“I don’t have confidence in AACOG being able to improve our air quality,” Bravo says. “For them, it’s all about avoiding non-attainment and focusing on the economic damage. No one is talking about the people.”
In July, shortly after Gov. Abbott pulled funding from the region’s air pollution monitoring, AACOG announced that local cement companies and the oil and gas industry (specifically producers in the Eagle Ford shale) will begin funding new studies on the emissions that impact San Antonio’s air quality.
“Optics aren’t great right now,” Bravo says. “We shouldn’t have the companies that produce the emissions paying for these studies. Where’s the accountability?”
It's possible AACOG may simply be following orders from TCEQ — an agency that previously froze AACOG’s funding after it released a study proving that Eagle Ford fracking contributed to San Antonio ozone pollution.
Rath, however, says that funding from private stakeholders doesn’t impact the information in studies conducted by AACOG. “We’re totally independent, and they have no control over the information or the release of those reports,” she says.
“When I was first elected, my son Jonah asked me to take care of the bats,” says San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, addressing a room full of local business owners in October. “Then, Jonah asked me to take care of the trees and the water — included in that is the commitment to clean air.”
Nirenberg was speaking at San Antonio’s first-ever Air Quality Summit, hosted by the San Antonio Business Journal, a few days after the awaited EPA designation had failed to materialize. He was there to ask business leaders to take a voluntary pledge to cut back their emissions.
“People argue, ‘well there’s no federal mandate, there’s no federal backstop,’” Nirenberg told the crowd. “Remind them that the medical professionals in the room must be uncompromising about your children’s health. Remind them also that where we have set the federal standard is not where we need to be. We need to be better than that.”
Unlike state and county officials, Nirenberg appears to be less concerned with the designation itself than he is with the health of his residents. One of his first acts after being elected mayor in June was joining nearly 400 cities in pledging to uphold the Paris Climate Accord’s goals after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the global climate change agreement. It’s a move previous mayor Ivy Taylor had noticeably avoided.
“We have resolved to move forward on improving our air quality, regardless of what happens at the state and federal level,” Nirenberg told the Current in October. “What’s refreshing is that we don’t need to wonder, we don’t have to wait around to find out if we’re designated or not. We’re just gonna move forward because it’s the right thing to do.”
Dr. Cantu says she’s “very optimistic” with the way local leaders are handling air pollution. But there’s one group of people she says needs the most attention.
“We must educate our youth … get them to understand what’s going on when they’re young,” Cantu says. “Because this is what we’re leaving them.”