Just Don't Breathe It

What Houstonians can -- and probably won't -- do to clean up the air they drive through

To this end, major local employers have been dealing with the Employee Trip Reduction Program. Any company with a worksite employing 100 or more people must deal with ETR.

(This whole field is rife with abbreviations and acronyms like ETR, so get used to them. They save time and space.)

ETR -- Employee Trip Reduction, remember? -- which stresses carpooling and ride-sharing, rose from the federal Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. The affected companies have to concoct a plan to show how by 1996 their employees will meet an average passenger occupancy goal of 1.47 people per vehicle, a marked increase from the community-wide commuter average of 1.1 per vehicle.

The big stick in this scenario is held by the feds, who can withhold highway funds from states if progress isn't shown by 1996. The federales also can lean on Texas by doing things like prohibiting the opening of new industrial plants in Texas. The 1990 amendments also give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to issue fines without first going to court, and, if all else fails, the public can sue corporations for not abiding by the act's mandates. The ultimate federal deadline for Houston's compliance is 2007.

The state of Texas can levy fines against specific corporations that are deemed uncooperative. The state's "or else" part of the program includes a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per day per violation, or an administrative penalty of up to $10,000 per day per violation. It's a step-by-step process whereby firms can be fined for not submitting a plan, for not having a plan approved, for not reporting periodically or for not making the necessary revisions to achieve their goals.

Just how serious these threats are is open to question, but some people perceive them as real enough to get states and some employers to come up with plans, if not serious action.

Government types from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission are banging the drum loudly about ETR, promising widespread corporate cooperation, a dramatic rise in carpooling and a measurable improvement in air quality. Others aren't so sure.

Neil Carman worked twelve years as a field investigator for the Texas Air Control Board, which together with the Texas Water Commission was folded into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission in September 1993. The new combined commission is responsible for ETR and the monitoring of air pollution. Carman lives in Austin and is now the director of the Clean Air Program for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Carman thinks ETR is a nice idea, but he is a tad skeptical about who will cooperate and how state environmental officials will monitor compliance at the area's thousands of worksites.

In a telephone interview, Carman asked, "Do they have the troops to go out there and enforce the rules? They can get everyone's plan and say it looks fine to them, but I'd be absolutely shocked if they really go after anybody very much. Oh, they'll write a threatening letter, but that just looks good on paper... I don't think this [ETR] is very popular in Texas. This is an election year. I don't think they're going to go after them very heavily."

Texas has already fudged some deadlines. There were staggered deadlines for Houston- and Galveston-area corporations to submit ETR plans: employers with more than 400 workers had been told to file plans by May 15 of this year. July 15, September 15 and November 15 were the deadlines for smaller companies. That's scrapped now. Plans are due either September 15 or November 15.

"One of the problems at this point is they don't have the resources to go out and do much with this," said Carman. "What they've done is postpone it, but I think that raises some legal issues about the federal Clean Air Act."

About 1,200 companies missed a September 1, 1993 deadline merely to register with the state. Close to 600 companies still haven't bothered to fill out and mail in a one-page registration form. The state has sent a series of letters, and so far 1,801 worksites have registered. Those worksites have 640,000 workers.

"I see companies trying to find ways to get around these laws," Carman said. "So far we haven't seen continuous compliance by industries in Texas with either the state or federal clean-air laws."

Houston's main air-pollution problem is with ground-level ozone, the principal component of smog. The other measures of air pollution are nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and lead. Ground-level ozone is not to be confused with the much-discussed hole in the ozone; that hole has to do with the protective ozone in the stratospheric layer of the earth's atmosphere.

Ground-level ozone is a "secondary" pollutant formed by the photochemical reaction of hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and sunlight. These precursor elements, called "volatile organic compounds," come from vehicular exhaust, large industrial sources, small businesses and "consumer activities" such as aerosols and power lawnmowers.

(Before scoffing at power lawnmower abuse, consider this: the January 1994 Scientific American reports that American lawns cover about 25 million acres, an area about the size of Pennsylvania. An hour of gasoline-powered lawnmowing emits pollutants equivalent to those produced by a car driving 350 miles. So beginning in 1996, all gasoline engines under 25 horsepower, including lawnmowers and chainsaws, must have catalytic converters to reduce emissions.)

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