“It is a compliance issue for our area because we keep narrowly being able to stay below [the national air quality] standard,” said Andrew Hoekzema, director of regional services at the Capital Area Council of Governments, at an April 8 CAMPO board meeting. “But unless we have better air quality this year than we had last year, then our region will be violating the ozone standard.”
The Environmental Protection Agency periodically updates the standards. Currently, states are required to maintain a ground-level ozone rate of 70 parts per billion or lower.
The rate of ground-level ozone in Central Texas region was 68 parts per billion in 2018, Walker Williamson, an air quality division manager at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told the board.
This rate, however, is a composite of air quality measures taken over time.
“Altogether, [in 2018], we had 10 days where ozone levels were over 70 parts per billion, which means that someone somewhere in the Austin area was exposed to ozone levels that the EPA considers unhealthy for sensitive groups,” Hoekzema said, adding the region saw ozone levels as high as 84 parts per billion in San Marcos.
Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly and people with lung diseases, such as asthma, according to the EPA. It can also have harmful effects on sensitive ecosystems.
Not meeting national air quality standards can trigger a series of consequences.
Regional transportation plans and programs would have to conform to a state implementation plan, ensuring they do not cause or contribute to new violations of air quality standards, increase existing violations or delay attainment of air quality milestones.
Additionally, new industrial facilities hoping to come to the Central Texas region would face additional permitting requirements, Williamson said.
These additional requirements could cost the area as much as $40 billion in lost economic growth over the 25 years it could take the region to re-establish compliance, Hoekzema said, citing a 2015 study by CACOG.
But there may be reason to be optimistic.
Despite consistently meeting air quality standards in the past, “the [CAMPO] area has proactively sought to improve air quality,” Williamson said.
The TCEQ also offers grants to local governments to reduce emissions from polluting vehicles and equipment through its Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, said Donna Huff, director of the state agency’s air quality division.
“The city of Austin is the largest city in the country right now that is in attainment of all federal air standards,” Hoekzema said. “And I think we would all like to keep it that way.”