Apparently, the officials at Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have never tried to go jogging in Houston on a high-level ozone day, or they wouldn't be able to repeatedly appear before state lawmakers and insist that the state needs less air quality regulation, not more.
But that's what they continue to claim.
This week the chairman of the state environmental regulatory agency, Bryan Shaw, told state lawmakers that there won't be any further good from further lowering the amount of ozone that is allowed to be in the air.
This conclusion shouldn't come as much of a surprise. For years the TCEQ has had a, shall we say, interesting take on what it means to oversee environmental regulation in Texas.
At this point it would be funny if it weren't so exasperating.
In recent years as federal regulators have been looking at stricter ground-level ozone standards aimed at improving the air quality in smog-congested cities like Houston, Texas lawmakers have turned to their own state environmental regulatory agency to back up claims that dirty, polluted air is actually a good thing.
The TCEQ has locked step with state lawmakers on this issue in all kinds of oh-so-subtle ways. For one thing, the TCEQ's own chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, has emerged as a prominent denier of the mainstream science on the health impacts of ozone. Despite decades of research tying ground-level ozone to heart disease, asthma and other lung issues and possibly early death, Honeycutt has insisted that Texans don't have to worry about ozone because Texans mostly stay inside.
The state agency didn't stop there either. When the federal Environmental Protection Agency regulators convened an advisory panel of scientists and public health experts to figure out what the acceptable levels of ozone should be, TCEQ countered by funding a pro-industry study from a company called Gradient. The company was previously employed by the American Petroleum Institute and testified against changing the ozone standards on behalf of API.
And all of this goes along beautifully with the state approach to any sort of increase in environmental regulation. When the EPA announced that states would be required to reduce ozone levels, Texas sued the EPA.
So all things considered, it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Shaw appeared at a committee hearing Tuesday and told state legislators that further efforts to de-smog the air won't be for the "public good." The lawmakers had convened the hearing to discuss the impact federal environmental regulations might have on the Texas economy.
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“We’ve lowered the ozone standard close to the point that I’m convinced we’re not getting much, if any, benefit health-wise from lowering the ozone standard,” Shaw told the panel.
Shaw spent the two-hour hearing before the Texas House of Representatives Select Committee on Federal Environmental Regulations insisting that the the permitted levels of ozone pollution are just fine. He claimed that Gradient's review of the EPA study backed up his stance. “In-depth review of EPA analysis reveals there will be no public benefits,” he said. “Specifically, I’m referring to EPA’s own modelling predicting no reductions in asthma attacks in children nor respiratory hospitalizations in the elderly.”
Democratic State Representative Jessica Farrar of Houston wasn't buying it though. She stated that taxpayers will be the ones saddled with the bills if the people in low-income neighborhoods get sick from air quality issues and can't pay for medical expenses. "If we’ve got money for litigation, we should be using our resources to solve the problem," she said.
Fellow Houston Democrat State Rep. Gene Wu pointed out the gaping hole in Shaw's claims — years of research proves that being exposed to ozone does have an impact on health. "Thirty years of research and medical evidence says it does have an impact,” Wu told Shaw. “So, if you find any of those studies, let me know.”