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Here's a shock: I love driving in Houston. What sounds like a contradiction in terms isn't: The city offers up a unique visual drama that compensates for its frequently car-choked freeways.

It makes up, too, for the long haul in from San Antonio. After three hours of pushing the pedal to the metal on Interstate 10 (which sounds faster than it is — I'm driving a Toyota Corolla), my mind is numb; as for my eyes, well, they're wasted from staring out over the monotonous coastal plain. By the time I hit Katy, I'm more than ready for a little uplift.

Downtown Houston complies: Its soaring, glass-sheathed towers and stone-clad monoliths, with their varied geometric shape, tint, and volume, fill the windshield with a rich profusion of light, color, and form. That's by design, of course, for these buildings are best seen from the highway, and it is a joy to spin off I-10, head south on Interstate 45, and then north along U.S. 59 — a route that allows me to wrap around the central business district, and catch the play of angle, shadow, and glow.

But the eye-popping spectacle that welcomes weary travelers to the nation's fourth- largest city only works if we can actually see the dazzling skyline. That is becoming more difficult as a consequence of the Bayou City's deteriorating air quality.

The root causes of Houston's bad air have been clear since the 1970s, when the city was first slapped for violating the Clean Air Act. The degree of its non-attainment status has only intensified over the past three decades, due to the high level of auto and truck emissions and industrial pollutants; with more than 3.74 million registered cars, logging an estimated 70 million daily vehicle miles, it is no wonder that emissions swirl together into a toxic soup. And when trapped in a nasty air inversion, these noxious gases produce a poisonous dark cloud.

San Antonio's air has also degraded; the city has racked up two non-attainment days already this year. Since August and September are traditionally the smog-heavy months, it's likely San Antonio will tally enough bad air days to violate federal law and lose thousands of dollars in government funds. More bad news arrived last week when it was announced that San Antonio ranks 30th in the nation in traffic congestion — a primary villain in smog and ozone production. The city also ranks first in the percentage increase of traffic congestions.

The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, which monitors and regulates air-quality standards statewide, seems all-too willing to gamble with the public's health. As Houston's air quality standards plummet, it won't just be Houstonians who'll pay. San Antonio, as well may have little initiative to clean up its air problems if TNRCC continues to fold before the politically powerful.

That's what the commission did in early June when it rescinded the 55 mph speed limits on Houston highways, restrictions it earlier had enacted as part of a plan to meet clean air levels mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet, consider how the commission justified its decision. In its June 5 press release, cleverly entitled "Houston Clean Air Strategy Enhanced," it reassured locals that "intense scientific scrutiny" now revealed that mandated reductions in car speed had a negligible effect on lowering the levels of highly dangerous nitrogen oxides. The source of this "new science" was an EPA-sponsored study released in January: TNRCC and Houston boosters asserted that the study indicated a reduction in vehicle speeds had a negligible impact on nitrogen oxide emissions. But the TNRCC did not acknowledge that this new finding, based on an upgraded emissions modeling system called Mobile 6, is only preliminary until more widely field tested. Nor did the TNRCC reveal that the technique had not been applied to Houston or that Mobile 6's generalized projections showed that there is a correlation between speed and nitrogen oxide emissions — just not as large a one as previously supposed. This hardly constitutes "scientific scrutiny."

Moreover, the TNRCC didn't note that nitrogen oxides, a generic term for a set of highly reactive gasses dangerous to public health, are only one element of the EPA's list of the six principal tailpipe pollutants. Will lifting the limit to 70 mph have a "negligible" impact on the amount of lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds? Hardly. "Almost every car and truck burns less fuel per mile traveling at 55 mph than at 70 mph," observes Alan Clark, transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. "Because you're burning less fuel, you're emitting less air pollution."

Perhaps that maxim is too difficult for TNRCC to grasp; yet science (new or otherwise) didn't lead to its hasty retreat in Houston — but politics did. The commission's original December 2001 decision to lower speed limits ran into a series of roadblocks. Brazoria and Fort Bend counties sued in state district court to halt enforcement in their political jurisdictions. The Business Coalition for Clean Air Appeals Group — a petrochemical lobby — also filed suit in the same Austin district court, challenging the TNRCC's decision to force them to cut back on industrial emissions. Even Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal let slip this spring that taking ticketed motorists to a jury trial would work to the defendant's advantage, a thinly veiled effort to sabotage the law's enforcement. Then there was the anti-environmental congressional cabal: Tom Delay and his fellow local Republican representatives fired off a stiff public rebuke of TNRCC's actions.

Under this onslaught, the commission buckled. "There is no question there has been a large amount of requests `to repeal the limit` from elected officials," TNRCC chair Robert Huston admitted to the Houston Chronicle. "There has been a huge public outcry. Of course we responded to that."

The commission always has buckled under political pressure. Two years ago, when the TNRCC had an opportunity to adopt California's tougher emissions standards (that, not incidentally, would reduce nitrogen oxide levels by 25 percent), it refused to do so after auto industry lobbyists and their Republican toadies applied considerable force. This is not an agency committed to the broader public good.

But have no fear, we'll get tagged for poor air sooner rather than later, in part because we so love the car. In 1990, there were nearly 875,000 automobiles registered in Bexar County, or 1.36 people per car; as of November 2001, there were 1.49 million cars, or .99 people per car. More cars plus more drivers equals greater air pollution, a level of emissions that, as Houston and Los Angeles vividly demonstrate, has devastating effects on communal health and lifespan.

Our only hope may be that our accelerating automobility runs afoul of the EPA. Its regulatory authority was strengthened this past year when first Supreme Court, and, most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals, gave the federal agency the green light to issue and enforce even more stringent air quality standards. If enacted, these new regulations will have a real impact, too: According to the American Lung Association, these tougher requirements would, among other outcomes, prevent upwards of 15,000 premature deaths and perhaps as many as 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma. That is great news, and might prove a potent rebuttal to those entrenched politicians and TNRCC bureaucrats for whom "clear air" seems a dirty word.

To discuss air quality issues with the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, there are several people you can call.

John Stieb, director of air permits, oversees permits for facilities that propose to emit pollutants into the air: 512-239-1250

The Office of Public Assistance addresses issues brought to the TNRCC by citizens: Jodena Henneke, (800) 687-4040

The three commissioners are Chairman Robert Huston, 512-239-5505; Ralph Marquez, 512-239-5510; and Kathleen Hartnett White, 512-239-5515.

Names and numbers of state legislators are listed in "Yak at your rep."

Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio.

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