The data measured at an air quality monitoring station at Murchison Middle School in Central Austin could affect the entire Central Texas region and its future growth.
If the Environmental Protection Agency finds that the Austin area is in nonattainment of federal air quality standards, the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will step in and enact a State Improvement Plan to help the area reach attainment, potentially affecting future economic growth and transportation funding for the region.
Austin is not in danger of exceeding most of those standards, except for one. But that one standard, the eight-hour ozone reading, is a concern to air quality staff at the Capital Area Council of Governments and member entities throughout the region. The numbers the EPA considered in 2011 put Austin's eight-hour ozone reading at 75 parts per billion, which is the agency's limit, and the EPA is likely to lower that standard in the future.
The EPA last revised the standard in 2008, and because it is required to revise them every five years, the agency is expected to propose new standards in 2013.
"Once the EPA sets a new air quality standard or revises an existing standard, the agency designates areas as meeting the standards (attainment areas) or not meeting them (nonattainment areas). The agency works closely with states as it determines attainment and nonattainment boundaries. These designations generally are made within two years after [the] EPA issues a new or revised standard," EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said.
But with regionwide conservation measures and action the CAPCOG executive committee took Aug. 8 authorizing CAPCOG to negotiate with the EPA to accept and implement a $1 million grant, regional parties are taking steps to try and reduce ozone levels.
Where are we now?
There are two regulatory monitoring stations in Austin's five-county metropolitan statistical area, which comprises Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties. Both monitoring stations, however—the Murchison station and one located at the Travis Audubon Society Baker Preserve—are in Travis County.
To calculate the number the EPA uses to measure attainment, the fourth-highest value from the monitoring station with the highest level is obtained for the last complete year and averaged with the fourth-highest value from the two previous years. Murchison's monitor has consistently been the monitor with the highest number. CAPCOG Air Quality Director Bill Gill said it is unknown where the three-year value will be the next time EPA measures attainment, which will likely be in 2013.
"If everything was calculated as of [July 2012], that three-year value would be below 75 [parts per billion]," Gill said.
Importance of ozone levels
Riley said monitoring air pollution is important for several reasons. According to the EPA, inhaling high levels of ozone interacts with biological processes in the respiratory system and can exacerbate health problems, such as asthma. Air quality has been something regional entities, even those that do not agree with each other on many things, have worked together on.
"We all have to breathe the air around Austin, and no matter what your political party is, I think we all agree that we want clean air. We also would like to see the region in attainment because we all have a stake in maintaining access to transportation funding," said Chris Riley, Austin city councilman and member of the Clean Air Coalition.
Areas that are designated as being in nonattainment with EPA air quality standards must create a State Improvement Plan, which usually means entities in the area must take additional steps when asking for transportation funding, and certain projects may be harder to fund.
"My understanding is you would need to make a showing with transportation projects that the project will not contribute to air quality problems," Riley said.
Gill said the other thing that would happen would that be any significant source of new emissions would require an offset or a reduction in another place.
"For an area of Houston, that may not be that big of a deal. But Austin doesn't have that much [in the way of large sources] to start with," Gill said.
Causes of ozone
Ground-level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides react. Cars and heavy diesel trucks are a significant source of ozone precursor, as are power generation facilities. Specifically, Gill said the Decker Power Plant east of Austin and The University of Texas' power plant contribute to the ozone numbers in the Austin area.
"Ozone is not emitted directly; it's a chemical reaction," Gill said.
In the Austin area, ozone season is considered to be April to October. That is why some officials were relieved when the Circuit of The Americas moved the first Formula One race from June to November. Gill said high ozone levels have not been recorded that late in the year.
"That was a concern we raised from the very beginning of the discussions about the Circuit of The Americas, so we were all pleased when the main Formula One event was moved outside of ozone season," Riley said.
CAPCOG will be performing an assessment of the race to determine what kind of impact Formula One or other events, such as South by Southwest Music and Media Conference or the Republic of Texas biker rally, can have on ozone levels.
"To do an assessment of this race now enables you to get some kind of perspective on what kind of emissions an event like that would generate. You can kind of estimate what kind of impact it would have if it was held during ozone season or what sort of impact a smaller event might have if it was held during ozone season," CAPCOG Air Quality Specialist Andrew Hoekzema said.
The $1 million grant CAPCOG received from the EPA will provide 25 percent of the funding required to replace 10 pieces and 50 percent of the funding to repower two pieces of airport ground support equipment—baggage tugs that haul baggage carts—that currently run on diesel. There is also money in the grant to be allocated to replace and repower diesel trucks for the Austin Water Utility and vehicles for Travis County and San Marcos.
"Ozone is a regional pollutant. It doesn't stop at the boundary of an MSA. With a local ozone problem, it's the local contribution that puts it over the edge, but there's only so much you can do within an urban area to reduce emissions," Gill said.