We're No. 1!

Houston seems destined to remain the country's biggest stink hole

Henderson isn't holding out much hope of an attitude adjustment from the EPA, which has the ability to force EquiVap's acceptance, and plans to pursue the matter in court. "They won't change until something like a two-by-four comes their way," he says.

So EquiVap will not be part of Houston's smog-reduction plan, a fact that only amplifies what most folk in the know are saying privately: The plan is a joke. Among other flaws, it doesn't specifically take into account the tons of ozone-forming chemicals that will spew into the air every year if the proposed Bayport complex is built. Nor does it include unreported or underreported emissions, such as the October release alleged at the Chevron plant in Baytown that TNRCC believes helped push the city past Los Angeles as the nation's smog capital. "That's just the tip of the iceberg," says Carman.

But the TNRCC will submit the plan, based almost entirely on computer models, and the EPA will probably accept it.

Do hold your breath: The state's plan to clean up Houston's air smells like a loser.
Joe Forkan
Do hold your breath: The state's plan to clean up Houston's air smells like a loser.

Carman points out that earlier state-generated models have already proven wrong in field tests. Estimates of emissions from vehicles and "biogenic" sources (trees, for example) have been too high; those for industry have been too low. The state has corrected some of those numbers, but the calculations remain very fuzzy and theoretical. "There's real problems with the accuracy," Carman says. "Nobody really knows how big the numbers are."

As difficult as it has been to juggle the numbers, that's the easy part of the clean-air equation. The plan, which assumes that specific reductions will actually happen, is rife with flying pigs. The likelihood that industry will voluntarily hack its emissions by 90 percent, for example, is slim. Bush is too dependent on campaign contributions from industry (he has already raised millions from Texas polluters) to start pissing them off with pricey demands.

The state will have little more success with the citizens, who have shown a particular resistance over the years to carpooling, bus riding or otherwise changing their smog-producing behavior. Good luck trying to revive the strict auto emissions testing program that the Legislature aborted in 1995 after voters complained it was too expensive and inconvenient (and which eventually cost taxpayers $140 million to settle a resulting lawsuit). And no doubt, there'll be a huge stink when the police start arresting scofflaws who mow their lawns between six and ten in the morning.

The TNRCC says we'll have no choice, that everyone will have to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. Coming from an agency that has shown a chronic aversion to the word "enforcement," such tough talk rings hollow. In fact, what the state, industry and most everyone else may really be hoping for is something other than a hard-nosed, unified effort to improve air quality. In the past, says Carman, the TNRCC has declined to aggressively attack the problem in favor of lobbying to delay or weaken standards. And he sees no evidence of change, which may solidify Houston's position as Shit City well into the next century. "That's their strategy," he says. "They're gonna get Bush in the White House, and they're gonna try and gut the Clean Air Act."

E-mail Bob Burtman at bob.burtman@houstonpress.com.

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