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Air Wars: AACOG, Bexar fight EPA's proposed tightening of air regs 

That's under EPA's "old" rule. Gird yourself for the red ink of *really* clean skies.

Greg Harman

The lung-assaulting haze that sits on other Texas cities like Dallas and Houston half the year is so brutal that there really isn't any debate about which direction to move. The need for the dismantling of the air-polluting cartel and its myriad henchmen â?? among them, cement batching operators, enslaved suburban commuters, and lawnmower-engine-powered bicycle aficionados â?? is painfully obvious.

Not so in San Antonio. As ozone season broke over the Alamo City this morning, the forces of ozone awareness and smog-reducing car-pooling programs at the Alamo Area Council of Governments were found fighting the proposed tightening of federal air-quality standards.

“The San Antonio region does not agree with lowering the 8-hour average ozone standard from the current level without balancing credit acknowledging transport into the airshed,” wrote the Air Improvement Resources Committee of the Alamo Area Council of Governments in a March resolution. (There, you learned something already. You didn't even know San Antonio had an “airshed,” didya?)

The U.S. EPA is expected to reduce federal limits on ground-level ozone (otherwise known as smog) from 75 parts per billion to somewhere between 60 ppb and 70 ppb by the end of summer.

`By way of contrast, that high-altitude ozone layer is the good stuff the feds (and other semi-aware life forms) want in the air to block out ultra-violent rays.`

In the hopes of countering the federal smog patrol, AACOG is asking the EPA to specifically prove the nasty stuff in our skies (much of which drifts in from Houston, they argue) is unhealthy for local residents before piling on new regs.

While health studies have long linked ozone with sickness and lung damage, the AIR Committee suggests the links aren't so clear in San Antonio. Citing analysis by SA's Metropolitan Health District, the committee wrote there was “little or no correlation between asthma-related emergency department visits and occasional ozone exceedances.” Though they did allow that better asthma management might be partly responsible.

Bexar County Commissioners cited Metro Health's failure to connect bad air with sick kids when they passed their resolution on March 9 opposing new lower standards.

The EPA's director of regional communication seemed unimpressed.

“San Antonio is, I think, the tenth largest metropolitan area in the county, with a great deal of what we characterize as mobile sources, cars and trucks,” said Dave Bary, EPA spokesperson for Region 6, which includes Texas. “It's true that ozone does not respect political boundaries because it blows around. However, the monitors are in the San Antonio area. That's where the high levels of ozone are occurring. Regardless of the source, or where it's coming from, it's the San Antonio, three-county area, that could potentially be placed in the non-attainment based on the values of ozone that are being monitored in real time.”

In fact, studies have shown our cars and trucks make up the largest chunk of locally generated pollutants contributing to our smog problem. Not surprisingly, one penalty we may incur from tougher limits would be mandatory vehicle-emissions testing, which was not a popular idea when it was last considered a few years ago, said Peter Bella, AACOG's natural resources director. “That's the next step up as far as prescribed, required programs,” Bella said. Fears when first considered were that “it would be the low-income folks who would perhaps have a difficult time having their cars repaired for the sake of them being less polluting,” he said.

Currently, San Antonio is averaging 74 parts per billion over a three-year period â?? one part per billion below the current limit. (One part per billion is roughly equivalent to a drop of ink in a massive oil tanker.) Last year's reading was 78 ppb, according to the EPA.

Ultimately, whether the rules are tightened as expected may be irrelevant, since San Antonio is expected to fall out of compliance with the current standard next March when 2007 rolls out of three-year range to be replaced with 2010's readings, Bella said. So, a few more drops of ink this year and we're all doomed.

Non-compliance, and the costs that come with it, could be the best possible outcome for the thousands of asthmatic kids in our congested school system. But it would be a shame to let smoggier Houston off the hook like that.

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