A change in the San Antonio area’s federal air quality classification set in motion new rules for businesses and residents.

In November, the San Antonio area fell in its ranking for not meeting federal air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Since 2018 San Antonio had been classified as having a “marginal” score, or being out of compliance with the ozone standard. Now the area has worsened to a “moderate” level but officials hope to avoid being classified at the “serious” level.

John Williams, chair of the Alamo Area Council of Governments Air Quality Committee and mayor of Universal City, said the area almost met a higher standard. Governmental agencies, businesses, and area residents continue to work to meet EPA requirements that were put in place to lower the amount of ground-level ozone in the air.

“We were so close to being in attainment,” Williams said. “And we are working hard to meet•

the EPA requirements the best we can.”

Following this fall in the area’s air quality rating, drivers and business owners are now facing new regulations. These include emissions testing for automobiles and stricter allowable emissions levels for businesses.

Lyle Hufstetler, natural resources project administrator for the AACOG, said the increase in regulations could result in businesses being deterred from moving or expanding to the area, or could increase product costs as businesses pay to meet requirements.

Ozone’s importance

Stratospheric ozone forms naturally in the upper atmosphere and acts as a protectant from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But ground-level ozone is created through the two types of interactions.

One is the human-made and natural emissions of volatile organic compounds—which include petroleum fuels, paint thinners and dry cleaning agents—and the other is nitrogen oxides interacting with heat and sunlight, such as vapors from gas and coal, the EPA website states.

Hufstetler said Guadalupe, Comal, Wilson, Atascosa, Medina, Bandera and Kendall counties are “in compliance with the ozone standard.”

“Bexar County is what is in nonattainment right now,” Hufstetler said.

Moving to moderate

Despite the 19% San Antonio contributes to the area’s total pollution, it’s still the responsibility of the city, the county and local organizations to meet EPA requirements, Hufstetler said.

“Our modeling only shows that really only about 20% comes from our metro area,” he said. “The other 80% we find comes in from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.”

Of the roughly 20% of overall pollution the area contributes, 29.7% of the contribution is from mobile sources, which include automobiles and other road vehicles; 25.2% of the contribution is from point sources, which are classified as factories and power plants, including coal production, Hufstetler said.

With the transition to moderate nonattainment, large businesses in the area will have to meet rules to offset projected emissions.

“The most directly impacted will be large industries, those that have the potential to emit 1•00 ton•s a year of emissions,” Hufstetler said. “Those are the ones that feel the change most acutely from marginal to moderate.”

The more severe the nonattainment status, the higher that offset ratio will be, which may discourage businesses from coming to the area, Hufstetler said.

“For businesses in the area that have to use a technology solution to help offset their emissions, I imagine that cost will get passed down to the consumer,” he said.

For Bexar County residents, an emissions inspection will be required for all cars 2-24 years old. The emissions test is required to be implemented by 2026, Hufstetler said. These tests will cost residents about $20 during the yearly state inspection. “And if their vehicles do not pass, then that could mean they pay more to get their vehicles in compliance,” he said.

Meeting EPA standards

The moderate designation means the area is required to comply with EPA air quality regulations by Sept. 24, 2024, or face further regulations being implemented. It also gives the TCEQ the regulatory role to enforce the EPA’s Clean Air Act regulations.

EPA requirements are measured in parts per billion, or the parts of ozone per 1 billion parts of air.

Under a standard that was set in 2015, the requirement to be within attainment was decreased from 75 ppb to 70 ppb. Williams said at that time the committee was aware of the area potentially entering nonattainment.

“When [the] EPA changed the parameters from 75 parts per billion to 70 [ppb], we knew we were in trouble,” Williams said.

To help meet EPA standards, the AACOG is working with the Clean Cities Coalition National Network—a program by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote clean fuel alternatives and raise awareness of pollution caused by idling cars—and other organizations to help inform the community.

In North San Antonio, Alamo Cement Co. completed a 45-acre solar panel field that company officials said will help reduce the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by 8,000 tons yearly.

In the area, municipally owned CPS Energy is the largest provider for electricity and energy generation.

To help cut back on contributions to pollution, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the city will leave coal energy behind by 2028, which is 35 years sooner than expected.

“The plan we approved calls for closing the Spruce I coal plant by 2028 and transitioning Spruce II to natural gas by 2027—minimizing the burden on our ratepayers,” he said.

Nirenberg said the plan will add more than 4•,900 megawatt•s of generation capacity, including new wind and solar capacity and battery storage.

CPS Energy has also made a push for alternative energy production by implementing programs, such as Windtricity and Casa Verde.

The Windtricity program allows residential and business customers to enroll in an initiative to support the growth of wind power.

In 2009, Universal City was the first Texas city to become a Green Power Community under the EPA for using the Windtricity program and supporting the development of wind power.

The Casa Verde program aims to help low-income households reduce power consumption and has weatherized 30,000 homes since its inception.

Williams said Universal City and other area cities have helped promote alternative power sources in the community, encouraging solar power use to residents interested in cutting costs.

Williams said the AACOG is working with other area governments to promote programs that help cut pollution.

“I think you will find a lot of cities in our area are doing their best to at least try to meet the requirements and hopefully lessen the amount of pollution we have in the air,” Williams said.

Health concerns

Aside from regulation, an increase in ground-level ozone can lead to other health concerns for the San Antonio area, Metro Health Program Manager Kyle Cunningham said. Conditions could include reduced lung function, cardiac effects, asthma attacks, increased doctor visits, hospital admissions and—in extreme cases—death, Cunningham said.

“As the ozone levels go up, it becomes harder,” he said. “Unfortunately, we may see increases in the number of people that are affected.”

While many of the effects are more likely in those with underlying conditions, on high ozone days, healthy people can also suffer.

An Ozone Action Day is defined by The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as one in which the forecast calls for high ozone levels. Residents and businesses are advised to take steps to reduce pollutants.

“On high ozone days, it becomes hard to breathe,” Cunningham said. “Even for healthy people, it becomes difficult because things are still; it is hot; and the ozone levels are rising.”• Community involvement

Mobile sources contribute 29.7% of area pollution. The community can play a part in cutting back on ozone pollution by carpooling, taking fewer trips during the day, refueling in the evening, not idling and using public transportation, Cunningham said.

Homeowners can also look into alternative energy sources for their homes, such as solar panels.

“These little things sound like they may not be much, but if we all work together and contribute a small amount, I think there would be a tremendous improvement,” Cunningham said.

Edmond Ortiz contributed to this report.