Smoke and Mirrors (and more smoke)

It's called "Motorist's Choice." But the new emissions testing program for Houston may not offer much of a choice after all. And it won't do much for cleaning the city's air, either.

That approach is also consistent with other TNRCC actions. In 1994, the agency refigured its "emissions inventory" of air pollutants from all sources in Houston by chopping tons off the total, making it easier to meet the cleanup goals. And with the TNRCC providing bureaucratic muscle, the EPA recently granted Houston industry a two-year waiver on obligations to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, an ozone component. TNRCC will soon ask for yet another extension. "I don't see the agency very serious in making reductions," says the Sierra Club's George Smith. "They're just sort of stalling, hoping the pollution standards are changed."

State air-quality officials are fond of pointing out the great strides Houston has made since the 1970s and early 1980s, when a brown haze regularly obscured the tops of downtown buildings. Due mostly to improvements in industrial technology, cleaner cars and small-business regulations, the number of days the city was in violation of the current ozone standard steadily dropped from 71 in 1985 to only 39 in 1994.

But last year, the number rose to 63, including ten straight days in September. Though all sides agree that the unusually hot summer was the biggest factor, any way it's spun, the news was bad. And even 39 days is a long way from the "attainment" level, which is one day per year.

John Stieb admits that juggling the computer model to show adequately low ozone levels will be a difficult enough task, let alone actually reducing them. "I think the agency has always acknowledged that it's going to be a challenge to achieve attainment in 2007," he says. "We expect to be able to. We have not identified all the parts of doing that yet."

The big picture is not good news for Houston lungs. According to federal statistics, more than 1.3 million people in the metropolitan area have chronic respiratory conditions, including more than 340,000 cases of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma. Though obviously not the sole cause, ozone plays a significant role.

The costs of these medical conditions is enormous -- an estimated $185 million every year. Treating local pediatric asthma cases alone costs more than $14 million annually. Though no study has been done in Texas, other comparisons of the relative costs of cleanup and health care suggest that cleanup is cheaper.

But that's in the long run, and as Motorist's Choice and other state efforts indicate, the short-term political will to impose unpopular changes on the cleanup side is almost totally lacking. Consequently, says George Smith, "The air is going to continue to be not fit to breathe."

Tim Hogan hoped for better. In addition to being an auto repair shop owner, Hogan is an asthmatic. Diagnosed at the age of four, he uses two inhalers to keep air flowing smoothly to his lungs. In the hot summer months, even from his more rural locale in Brazoria County, the inhalers only last about half as long. His asthma's worsened over the years, and a drive into Houston just makes it even worse, bringing on an unmistakable tightness in his chest.

"I just recently had a little boy," Hogan explains, as though nothing more need be said. "I don't want him to come down with what I've got.

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