Texas Fights for Dirtier Air, Sues EPA (Again)

In recent years, as the feds eyed tighter ground-level ozone standards aimed at reducing air pollution in smog-choked cities like Houston, the state of Texas turned to its own environmental regulators to help argue for dirtier air.

In fact, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s own chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, has emerged as a prominent denier of the mainstream science on the health impacts of ozone. While decades of research have led to the scientific consensus that chronic exposure to ground-level ozone exacerbates asthma, lung and heart diseases and may even lead to premature death, Honeycutt has argued that smog isn’t such a big deal because Texans mostly stay indoors. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gathered an advisory panel of scientists and public health experts to redetermine what allowable ozone levels should be, TCEQ commissioned some industry-friendly research that argued against tightening ozone standards.

So the lawsuit Texas filed against the EPA last week, the state’s 23rd against the agency since President Barack Obama took office, was basically a foregone conclusion. “The EPA’s new ozone rule is not supported by scientific data,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a prepared statement Monday announcing the lawsuit. “Areas of the country that fail to comply with these impossible standards will be subject to costly new regulations that will harm our economy and kill jobs.”

The EPA in October shrank the 75 parts per billion ozone limit to just 70 parts per billion, despite the agency’s own advisory committee calling for a limit as low as 60. “Put simply – ozone pollution means it hurts to breathe for those most vulnerable: our kids, our elderly and those suffering from heart and lung ailments,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement announcing the new rule. She estimated the change could cost industry some $1.4 billion annually by 2025, when most counties are expected to comply. That cost, EPA has insisted, is far outweighed by the health benefits of lowering air pollution levels.

Naturally, Texas disagrees with that. And, according to the Texas Tribune, to poke holes in EPA’s argument for lowering ozone levels, Texas environmental regulators paid industry-friendly researchers $1.65 million to challenge the science used to set the new rules. The consultant, Massachusetts-based Gradient Corporation, has published two TCEQ-funded studies arguing that the health benefits cited by EPA are exaggerated and that tighter ozone standards could actually cost the state somewhere north of $50 billion annually. It’s research that has been roundly criticized by outside experts, including one Harvard epidemiologist who’s called Gradient’s work “bullshit” science.

Look no further than Houston, the nation's petrochemical center of gravity, for targeted studies on the health impacts of ozone. Rice University researchers, by cross-referencing City of Houston emergency ambulance service records with ozone measurements, in recent years discovered that during periods of peak pollution, the risk of heart attack increases by as much as 4.6 percent. In another study, Rice researchers found that risk of asthma attacks increase by as much as 10 percent when ozone levels are between 50 and 70 parts per billion, which is still below the current standard.

In his statement Monday, Paxton says, “Texas has proven that we can reduce ambient ozone concentrations without stifling growth.” Yet Houston, one of more than 200 cities nationwide that have yet to lower ozone levels to even the previous permitted amount, this year recorded ozone levels not seen in more than a decade. While the metro area averaged some 65 parts per billion last year, state data analyzed by the Houston Advanced Research Center show that air quality monitors in and around Houston averaged 81 parts per billion of ozone in 2015. According to the Chron , one monitor downtown reached 85 parts per billion, while another near Aldine Mail Road and U.S. 59 hit 95 parts per billion this year. 

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