The EPA may giveth, but it can also taketh away -- the agency is toughening guidelines in the fight against smog pollution, lowering the national ozone limit for the eight-hour standard.
A federal Environmental Protection Agency spokesman says the agency will announce today that it is lowering the limit to no more than 70 parts per billion, significantly less than the 75 parts per billion that was set under the Bush administration.
This will have a significant impact in Texas and will most likely double the number of counties currently in non-attainment. Currently, claims the Sierra Club, 20 counties have not been able to meet the federal ozone benchmark. The number could grow to more than 40.
The new ozone standard is in part a result of litigation claiming that the Bush administration limit did not meet the recommendations of scientific studies which showed that ozone levels above 70 parts per billion are extremely dangerous to human health. Dr. Stuart Abramson of Texas Children's Hospital says that smog can trigger asthma, lung disease and premature death.
Heavy industry around Houston has said it is making great strides in reducing smog, but that much of the problem in the area here floats in from elsewhere. And to a degree, clean-air advocates agree.
"Everyone says this new standard will be harder to attain," says Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, "but I think it will make it easier because as more places become non-attainment, we'll have to stop thinking about air pollution as if it's created in one place and stays in one place. It's going to force much broader, regional and state-wide air-quality policies that should help everyone clean up."
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In light of the EPA's announcement, groups like the Sierra Club are taking aim at coal-fired plants, one of the largest emitters of smog.
"The only way for cities to get into attainment," says Eva Hernandez of the Sierra Club, "is if Texas regulators do not permit any more coal plants. And we're actually going to have to shut down some of the old, dirty ones to meet the new standard."
In Matagorda County, just outside of Houston's eight-county ozone region, a new coal plant is being proposed called White Stallion Energy Center. Environmentalists say it could jack up the region's ozone levels by 2 parts per billion each year.
"In order for Houston to achieve this new standard," says Tejada, "we need policies not just for Houston but for Texas and the United States and hopefully this new standard will force that realization."