As Bexar County teetered on the brink of violating federal air quality standards for almost two decades, community leaders and chambers of commerce warned that slipping into so-called “non-attainment” status would trigger economic calamity.
After all, Environmental Protection Agency rules restrict new highway construction and some factory expansions in non-attainment areas. Plus, consumers can expect higher gasoline prices and maybe even pricy emissions tests for their cars.
All of that’s true, of course. As is the fact that San Antonio tumbled into non-attainment earlier this month.
But what’s largely absent from discussion of the new federal regulations is how they’ll help the city breathe easier. Curbs on ozone emissions can prevent dozens of deaths, thousands of hospitalizations and millions of dollars in lost productivity yearly, according to health experts.
“The decision to put communities in non-attainment isn’t taken lightly by regulators,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas director for watchdog group Public Citizen. “The consequences to a city from high ozone levels are great, and they need to be addressed. Pollution is a major contributor to lost productivity, to health problems and to quality of life.”
Smog-causing ozone presents significant health risks to people suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems. A 12-year study of 911 calls in the non-attainment city of Houston found that a 20-parts-per-billion increase in ozone levels over a three-day period resulted in a 4 percent increase in cardiac arrests and a 5 percent increase in asthma attacks, for example.
Those stats should be especially daunting in Bexar County, where child hospitalizations due to asthma exceed the state average. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 14.7 of 10,000 children 17 or under were hospitalized for asthma, well above the Texas average of 8.3 per 10,000.
“When it comes to clean air, I tell people chances are someone you know or the child of someone you know has asthma,” Shelley said. “This affects everyone.”
Plus, respiratory attacks mean missed work, missed school and lost productivity, all of which have a dollars-and-cents impact. The EPA took those factors and more into account in a cost-benefit analysis that predicts the Clean Air Act will result in a $2 trillion economic benefit by 2020, compared to the $65 billion governments and business pay in compliance costs.
Even so, during recent maneuvers to keep S.A. out of non-attainment, local and state leaders argued the additional regulations would crush economic growth prospects. But the fact is San Antonio was among the few metro areas that hadn’t yet slipped into non-attainment, and none of those already there have transformed jobless urban wastelands.
“Has economic development or population growth in Dallas or Houston been brought to a screeching halt because of their non-attainment status?” asks Heywood Sanders, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “And the answer to that, of course, is no.”
The Houston metro remains a petrochemical hub, and for the 12-month period ended in June, it created 94,600 jobs, a 3.1 percent increase over a year prior. Dallas, also no slouch when it comes to business, added 122,000 jobs over the 12-month period ended in May, for a 3.4 percent growth rate.
What’s more, there are few signs that cities’ non-attainment status frightens away major corporate suitors. Among the 20 finalist cities for Amazon’s second corporate headquarters — arguably the decade’s most coveted economic development prize – the majority are in non-attainment.
Of course, metros in non-attainment can improve their air quality to shrug off the federal yoke. To that point, acting EPA Administrator Scott Wheeler earlier this month said San Antonio has made progress toward that goal.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s plan to modernize San Antonio’s transit system could be a step in that direction, since much of the city’s ozone woes come down to vehicle emissions. But if the city’s serious about slashing greenhouse gas production, it should think not just about transit but how it develops. Continued outward expansion will only result in more vehicles on the road for longer periods of time.
“Our employment centers are seriously dispersed,” Sanders said. “We don’t have a downtown central business district that serves as our employment hub. That’s a situation that’s tough, if not impossible, to change.”
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