Ozone Pollution and Us
October 13, 2017Share:
TL;DR: Hood County is on a path to be named an Ozone Nonattainment Area. That means that our air pollution caused by ozone is above federal EPA limits. Besides the health issues that are caused by ozone pollution, there are significant economic impacts. Included here are specific actions we can each take to reduce our ozone production.
What Is Ozone?
Ozone performs a valuable service if it’s in the right place, i.e. if it’s high in the atmosphere. There, it helps filter the strong UV rays that, for instance, contribute to skin cancers. Ozone high in the atmosphere is called “good” ozone.
Ozone at ground level, however, is considered “bad” ozone because of its many negative effects on humans, plants, and ecosystems. Ground level or “bad” ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight.
These “precursor” pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere by industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, escaping gasoline vapors, and evaporating chemical solvents.
Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly in children and the elderly, as well as in people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma or emphysema. It actually tends to worsen those conditions and can trigger a breathing crisis.
When inhaled, ozone can damage the lungs. Even relatively low amounts of ozone can lead to chest pain, chronic coughing, shortness of breath, and throat irritation, even among healthy adults. It is particularly a concern in individuals with an existing respiratory disease. In the DFW area alone, about 1 million residents are affected with asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. Childhood asthma has been on the rise for several decades, and air pollution is considered the likely culprit.
In 1979, the EPA first addressed ozone in their “Green Book,” the body of air quality regulations established under the Clean Air Act of 1963. Ozone pollution regulations have been affected by various amendments to the Act, but by 1997 the rules (amended again in 2008 and 2015) provided for monitoring and established target attainment levels nationwide.
After a monitoring period of several years (to which extensions are routinely granted), if a county hasn’t met the standard, it can be declared to be a Nonattainment Area (NA). Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall, Tarrant, and Wise counties are North Texas NAs, and Hood County is being currently monitored and has a “declare date” of this October. (The Trump administration is considering blanket extensions for all counties currently being monitored.) The EPA had extended the study until October 2017, but it is extremely likely that Hood will receive an NA designation, especially following a recent Trump administration action. Up until June of this year, federal grant money was available to stave off the growth of NAs. This money was being used to build natural gas fueling stations and to convert local government vehicles here in Hood County to natural gas. However, effective this past July 1st, the Trump administration canceled those grants.
It now seems that Hood County is on a path to declaration as an NA. While we had made good progress in reducing the Hood County levels, we still have a ways to go. We had almost achieved enough reduction to meet the 2008 standard (about a 15% reduction), but in 2015, the standard was dropped further, and meeting it will be a challenge indeed. Now, without the grant, it seems impossible. (You can read the EPA’s 2016 annual report on Hood County here for more information. The charts below, which come from the report, show the breakdown of sources of NOx and VOC in Granbury in 2008, 2011, and 2012.)
Not only do our high ozone levels mean that we will continue to have generally heightened health risks, more emergency room visits, and potentially shortened lives among our asthmatics and elderly citizens, but there are economic consequences that each citizen and the county as a whole will suffer.
An immediate effect is felt in the industrial base of the county. Any business that is building or improving a facility must install the most effective emission control technology regardless of cost. Further, any added emissions must be offset by an equivalent decrease in existing emissions. So county residents can say good-bye to new or expanded industry and the taxes that such expansions would bring with them. Property taxes on individuals can be expected to rise as the industrial tax base is effectively frozen.
The permitting process for new industrial, transportation, and other major construction will now involve both state and federal agencies, so we can expect that delays in the permitting will extend into months and years, further discouraging new industry or expansions. This will include highway projects, new or improved civic infrastructure like water treatment facilities, and, of course, private businesses.
Federally supported transportation and transit projects in the NA will be immediately halted, by law. Consider the effect on the proposed expansion of the Granbury Regional Airport: not only could we lose federal dollars, but we could lose the permit to build at all. Also potentially affected would be infrastructure projects receiving federal direct-stimulus funds or pass-through TxDOT funding. These may include the Cresson bypass or Highway 377 expansion. Again, any project found to add to the ozone pollution (because of, for example, higher traffic loads on expanded highways) must be offset by reductions elsewhere in the county’s overall ozone pollution.
At the individual level, your automobile fuels and other chemical products will require reformulation to reduce or eliminate ozone precursors, those compounds that react with sunlight. For example, the paint you buy will have to be specially formulated (and will cost more). Your vehicle inspection cost will increase about $30 and will be much more rigorous. A recent letter in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune recounted the writer’s experience when she got her first vehicle inspection after moving to the Metroplex. She had moved from a small town, but now in an NA she had to have “dyno emission” testing as a part of the annual inspection. As she tells it, “My pickup ran very well, but couldn’t pass the emissions test…I then had the option of having it repaired or selling it. But those repairs were way too pricey and had to be completed at a ‘Recognized Emission Repair Facility’…so I had to sell my truck.”
If you’ve bought gas in any of the surrounding NAs, you’ll recognize the “vapor capture hood”…and the extra $0.20 per gallon.
Now for the really bad news. Once a county is declared to be NA, that designation persists for at least 3 years. To regain normal status, after three years, the air must be shown to be significantly improved. And that will become harder to accomplish because climate change accelerates the production of ground level ozone. In other words, whatever our level of ozone is now, even if we don’t add to it…in three years it will have gone up! To my knowledge, none of the North Texas counties declared NA have ever been able to shed that designation. They just keep getting worse, albeit at a lesser rate than they had been.
What To Do?
There are several steps we can we take to reduce our impact on air quality.
- Choose a cleaner commute. Share a ride to work or use public transportation because 75% of ozone precursors are from vehicles.
- Combine errands and reduce trips. Walk or bicycle to errands when possible. Those activities also bring their own health benefits over and above reducing pollution.
- Refuel your car in the evening when it’s cooler. The gasoline vapors that escape during refueling are a potent ozone precursor, especially while the sun is shining at full strength.
- Conserve electricity. Set air conditioners no lower than 78 degrees, and dry clothes later in the night when temperatures and sunlight are lower. This can reduce utility demand, which reduces their emissions.
- Defer lawn and gardening chores that use gasoline-powered equipment when in an ozone alert (hot and sunny), or wait until evening. Small engines produce a disproportionate amount of ozone precursors. Reducing emissions when temps are high and sunshine is available to trigger the chemical changes is an effective way to mitigate these engines’ inefficiencies.
- Avoid excessive idling of your automobile.
- Demand enforcement of the Texas anti-idling law. Many North Texas cities have established a Memorandum of Authorization (MOA) with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) which gives local authorities the right to enforce the state’s anti-idling law. Since emissions of large trucks are responsible for 40% of the ozone precursors discharged in North Texas, this law prohibits idling for more than 5 minutes (with exceptions) by trucks over 14,000 pounds (Ford F-450 and up). The city of Granbury has such an MOA in place, but enforcement of the law has been less than rigorous. For more information on the law, go here and here.
- Get involved with the Hood County Clean Air Coalition.