Good, Clean Air

At some point in the next few days, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will most likely propose a new standard for what constitutes clean air.

The new standard, whatever it is, will probably put most urban areas, including Central Texas, into what’s known as “non-attainment.”  That means our air officially will be dirtier and unhealthier than the Clean Air Act allows. Another way to say it is that our air has failed to “attain” the health standard.

This is an unfortunate milestone that many big cities across the country have already passed.  It’s a sign of our significant growth over the last couple of decades, and it’s something that will lead to both subtle and obvious changes in the way we live and do business in Central Texas.

These changes aren’t unexpected.  Nearly a decade ago as Mayor of Austin, I started working with elected officials and business leaders from across the region to pre-emptively start cleaning up our air, and avoid doing things that would contribute to dirtier air, before we fell out of attainment with the Clean Air Act.

The result, an agreement known as the Clean Air Compact, was signed in 2002.  The program worked well.  It set out actions that have kept us in attainment with current federal rules even during a time of tremendous growth in our region.

But as we learn more about air pollution and health impacts, the rules and standards are subject to change.  Even during the Bush administration, the clean air standard got tougher, and Texas environmental officials and the Governor’s office have already recommended that Travis County be declared a non-attainment area under the Bush Administration’s standard.

Whatever the new standard turns out to be, the important thing is that it follow the best science we’ve got.  While a particular scientific number probably doesn’t mean much to most people, air pollution and its effects on Central Texans do.

The dirt on clean air

While the Clean Air Act looks at a lot of different pollutants, the one that matters most in areas such as Central Texas is ground-level ozone – better known to you and me as the main component of smog.  Besides being downright ugly, this ozone is particularly harmful for kids and the elderly, and it can cause or worsen asthma in some people.

(By the way, in all of the years that I’ve worked on cleaning up our air, one of my least-favorite ironies is that we spend so much time trying to reduce the ozone that’s bad for people while still trying to protect the ozone layer.  Yes, the ozone that makes it harder to breathe is different than the ozone that’s way up in the atmosphere and helps protect us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  And yes, this whole thing would probably be a lot easier if there were different names for the ozone we like and the ozone we don’t.)

Ozone doesn’t come directly from tailpipes and smokestacks, but it forms when nitrous oxide (NOx), which is emitted from combustion engines, mixes with sunlight and volatile organic compounds (VOC), which are produced by some manufacturing and industrial plants.

On really hot summer days, the NOx cooks with the organic compounds in the atmosphere to form ozone.  That’s why we have Ozone Action Days, when the elderly and young children are encouraged to remain indoors and everyone else is urged to take a bus to work and do other little things to help keep the air clean.

Four strikes

Throughout the year, health officials take air quality readings to monitor, hour-by-hour, just what it is that we’re breathing.  The feds take a look at the fourth-worst day in a year (averaging out readings over an eight-hour period).

If the average amount of pollution on the fourth-worst day is over the health standard for three straight years, then your air is officially unhealthy and your region is in non-attainment.  Think of it as a four strikes and you’re out rule.

It may sound complicated, but by taking the fourth highest day, regulators try not to penalize regions for hosting big events – like a Republic of Texas Biker Rally, or a big music festival on the same day as a college football game (hypothetically speaking).

For the last few years, the standard has been 80 parts-per-million of ozone.  Under the new rules proposed during the Bush administration, the standard would be lowered to 75 parts-per-million.  And the Obama administration may recommend something even lower.

But, like I said, the number is really only a number.  Our goal shouldn’t be to fight over the recommendation like it’s a betting line.

Our goal should be to make sure that we all – let’s call ourselves breathers – get the air we need to live well, have fun, work productively, and keep our region competitive with areas that can offer companies and workers unmistakably clean air.

Non-attainment isn’t something to be afraid of.  And if some folks really just want to fight, let’s make sure we’re fighting for clean air.