Clean-air advocates in Texas had such high hopes for the EPA under the Obama administration. After all, the federal environmental agency has said that, as early as today, it will significantly lower the national ozone limit and has essentially stated that some of Texas' pro-business industrial permitting practices may be illegal.
This is in stark contrast to an EPA under the Bush administration which critics say sat on its hands for eight years.
But today, those hopes are being somewhat dashed.
Several environmentalists based in Houston tell Hair Balls that the EPA is on the verge of declining to enforce statutorily mandated fines against heavy industry, as outlined in the federal Clean Air Act, for the Houston eight-county region's failure to meet ozone standards.
"In Houston," says Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund, "it's a really big deal."
In 1991, a one-hour standard for ozone, also known as smog, was established at 125 parts per billion. The Houston region had until 2007 to meet that standard. The area did not meet it by 2007, and has not since. Additionally, in 1997, an eight-hour ozone standard of 84 parts per billion was put into place. The region did not meet it in 2007, but did in 2008 and it looks like it will again in 2009.
Because the area did not meet the one-hour standard, Texas regulators were preparing to begin collecting fees on behalf of the EPA from heavy ozone polluters, which clean-air advocates say could add up to as much as $150 million per year. Yesterday, however, the EPA released a series of fee collection guidelines which appear to say that if the area reached the eight-hour standard, then the fines for not making the one-hour standard needn't be collected.
"It looks like the EPA has totally, and we think illegally, castrated that part of the Clean Air Act," says Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention.
Craft says that under the EPA's guidelines, the state may still collect fees for 2007, because the Houston region did not meet the eight-hour ozone benchmark, but would not for 2008 or 2009, meaning "they would not collect nearly as much money as if they stuck to what the statute says, that you have to meet the one-hour standard."
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The rationale for the EPA's fee collection guidelines, says Craft, appears to be that if the region is making progress and is meeting the eight-hour standard, it should not be punished. EPA regional spokesman in Dallas, Dave Bary, did not get back to Hair Balls before publication.
Craft says this reasoning is flawed, because substituting one standard for another "is not acceptable."
Ultimately, says Tejada, this is a step backwards for the EPA under Obama.
"If they go through with this," he says, "there will be lawsuits a-plenty against the EPA, which is sad."