Houston's Air Pollution Has Kept Its State Air Quality Program Off the Chopping Block

Houston has air pollution for a reason, of course.
Houston has air pollution for a reason, of course. Photo by Daniel Kramer
For once, the fact that Houston's air is heavily polluted has actually done us a favor.

Houston is infamous for its polluted air. Thanks to its proximity to the Houston Ship Channel, the beating industrialized heart of the carcinogenic coast, Houston has had an air pollution problem for decades, with reports coming in way back in the 1920s chronicling pollution increases, as we've noted before.

While there have been some improvements in Houston's air quality over the years, there's no changing the fact that Houston, which has been in non-attainment of the Clean Air Act standards since the rules took effect in 1975, remains among the most polluted cities in the country.

That little fact throws a whole different light on Governor Greg Abbott's recent line-item veto of $6 million in funding for clean air programs from the state budget, a move he justified by claiming that the state really needs to focus on clear-cut "non-attainment" areas in Texas.

"These resources should be prioritized to directly address problems in our non-attainment areas of the state so that we are better positioned to combat the business-stifling regulations imposed on these areas by the Environmental Protection Agency," Abbott wrote at the time of the veto.

Abbott then took the whole thing up to another level and claimed this move made sense since El Paso, San Antonio and other metro areas around the state are only "near non-attainment areas," according to Abbott. (Abbott apparently chose to ignore the fact that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported in 2016 that the air in these areas was in a state of non-attainment.)

The cuts are already hitting in San Antonio. On Thursday it was reported that San Antonio has already had to stop collecting data on six air quality machines and lay off four employees due to the budget cuts.

However, there's a (sort of) silver lining to this reality: Unlike other Texas metro areas, the ones with relatively cleaner air, Houston is an obvious non-attainment area, so we are not losing any state funding or air quality monitors because our air is simply too polluted to not be monitored.

But even though the city may introduce the fashion of wearing Darth Vader-style breathing masks in the near future, and Houston is one of the only metro areas to escape the fallout from the air quality program budget cuts, that doesn't mean we get through this unscathed.

"Abbott's veto looks like it was written by ExxonMobil," Ilan Levin, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, says. “From the state's perspective and the industry's perspective, this will allow both to claim there's no problem, that the air is clean, because they're getting rid of the monitors that would show when it isn't clean. But from the public's perspective, it's less transparency and more air pollution, for everyone in the state.”

In other words, the budget veto — particularly when paired with the state Legislature's decision back in April to pull $20 million out of the state's air quality program funding and give it to a pro-life program that is pushing alternatives to abortion — essentially translates to less air quality monitoring across Texas.

This new reality, paired with the TCEQ, the state's notoriously weak and pro-industry environmental regulatory agency, the pugilistic stance state lawmakers now adopt whenever the federal Environmental Protection Agency even sniffs in our direction, and the new laissez-faire take on environmental issues at the federal level, means even less support to help Houston deal with its own air quality issues.

(And keep in mind that Houston officials have gotten so frustrated in the past with the Texas approach to air quality monitoring that they went to court to try to win the right to oversee the issue on the local level, a move that was summarily smacked down by the Texas Supreme Court last year.)

Plus, there's the simple reality that air travels and so does pollution. “Air doesn't just stay within the confines of a city. The wind blows in all directions,” Levin says.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray