SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County's air quality exceeds the nation's health-based standards for smog, the Environmental Protection Agency determined Wednesday.
The air quality just fell short of the ozone standard that is part of the health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards, according to a city news release. The designation comes despite substantive progress San Antonio and the surrounding communities have made over the last several years to reduce air emissions.
"The EPA air quality designation is no surprise," Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. "The science showed clearly for several years that our region has been teetering on the edge of nonattainment because of stricter federal standards. As this designation loomed, we made great progress in achieving better air quality, and we will continue to strive for cleaner air. The region's ozone levels are down significantly from where they were a decade ago."
The Clean Air Act is the federal law designed to control air pollution on a national level.
Under the act, the EPA designates geographical areas in one of three categories for air pollution: "Attainment" (meeting the standards), "Nonattainment" (not meeting the standards), or "Unclassifiable" (insufficient data to classify).
Bexar County's air quality is designated "marginal nonattaintment," which is the lowest level of designation by the EPA and requires additional review related to transportation and industrial emissions.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will conduct a comprehensive emissions inventory of all sources within Bexar County, and major sources of emissions will be required to provide TCEQ with emissions statements. The AAMPO will oversee a process called Transportation Conformity, which requires an analysis to ensure that new transportation projects do not exacerbate our ozone levels, and new businesses or expansions that will increase emissions by more than 100 tons per year will be required to complete a TCEQ permitting process called a "New Source Review."
Air quality is affected by meteorological conditions combined with both local and transported emissions from outside of the area. Prolonged exposure to polluted air particularly threatens the health of children, people who are active or work outdoors and those with respiratory illnesses. The ozone levels in the San Antonio area have a decreasing trend from 2010-2016 in large part due to controls put on major sources of emissions like power plants and cement kilns, as well as improvements in vehicle emissions standards.
The designation comes in response to a court order requiring EPA officials to make a designation by Tuesday.
"This is a positive first step for reducing air pollution in Bexar County," said Elena Craft, senior health scientist, of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group based in Ausin that pushed the EPA to make its decision. "It could prevent dozens of preventable deaths and thousands of hospitalizations each year. Yet San Antonio families need EPA to do more to limit air pollution from oil and gas development in neighboring counties, which is likely contributing to the unhealthy smog levels in Bexar County. Without greater protections, the San Antonio area might not be able to breathe easier."
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said the designation "will cost Bexar County residents hundreds of millions of dollars. The EPA ignored a long track record of improving air quality in Bexar County. We are extremely disappointed and will examine every possible remedy."