Wednesday, July 17, 2013

San Antonio Clean Technology Forum

Observations, impressions
and ideas after attending
“The San Antonio Clean Technology Forum”

On July 11th, I had the privilege of attending the 2013 San Antonio Technology Forum, held at Rackspace headquarters. Thanks to my oldest daughter, who works at Rackspace, I was able to sit with some of her co-workers and listen to a panel of speakers discuss San Antonio's air quality and how we stand in our air attainment with the EPA.

The panel included Moderator, Robert Rivard, Speaker, Judge Nelson Wolff, Doyle Beneby from CPS, Dr. Thomas Schlenker from the SA Metropolitan Health District, Elena Craft from the Environmental Defense Fund and Peter Bella from AACOG (Alamo Area Council of Governments).

Their task was to discuss our current air quality in San Antonio and things being done to lower our emissions in and around Bexar County. In a nutshell, here’s how I summarize their discussion on the subject; "We have to do more", "Our air is getting worse", "Suburbs are bad", "Cars are really bad", and "Asthmatics are dying".

For a more detailed summary of the event, check out Iris Dimmick’s blog in the Rivard Report . The Express-News also reported on the event, but you'll need to have a subscription to their paper to read the story.

There was about 30 minutes allotted for people in the audience to ask questions and I was fortunate enough to mention the fact that last week's high ozone event had impacted not only San Antonio, but Big Bend National Park, where their ozone levels reached 65 ppb., despite Big Bend being located in one of the most remote spots on the planet. Background ozone will throw an estimated 97% of communities into non-attainment if the EPA lowers the eight hour average ozone standard to 65 ppb. Based on local monitoring, cities as small as Seguin (pop 25,000) will not be able to stay in attainment.

Here are a few of my observations from the panel discussion:

1. The Eagle Ford Emission Inventories presentation, which I viewed on July 8th at the AACOG Air Advisory Committee meeting, is based on three inventory analysis and the model data shown is a "worst case" scenario during a high ozone event when winds would be out of the southeast. Most of the impact (4-7 ppb.) in the worst case scenario will be on the south side of Bexar County, where high ozone is more rare than on the NW side of San Antonio, where the two monitors that have recorded ozone values over 75 ppb. are located. Ozone impact on the NW monitors may be an estimated 1-3 ppb. and even this is only during a high ozone event.

2. According to the Express-News, Peter Bella said, “the air quality of the region has gotten steadily worse since 2007."  Based on materials distributed by AACOG and data from TCEQ, this is not the case. Every year, NOx levels in San Antonio are decreasing as people purchase cleaner burning vehicles and CPS cleans up their power generation. NOx emissions in 2008 were 231 tons per day as compared with 184 tons per day in 2013. 4th highest ozone values since 2007 are as follows: 2007 (77 ppb.) 2008 (78 ppb.) 2009 (75 ppb.) 2010 (78 ppb.) 2011 (79 ppb.) 2012 (87 ppb.) 2013 (79 ppb.). High ozone days are random and associated with weather events, as I mentioned in my question to the panel on July 11th. In 2002, the 4th highest ozone reading was 104 ppb., and then the following year it was 86 ppb. It's all about the weather. Dirty high pressure moves into our area when our winds shift to the NE and East during summer months.

3. Nelson Wolff's quote is curious, according to the San Antonio Express-News, “We have got to start living closer to each other,” Wolff said. “We have got to quit spreading out. We have to stop building highways.”  Based on Bexar Appraisal District records, Judge Wolff resides near Wurzbach Road and Military Drive, about 13 miles NW from downtown San Antonio. I’m cool with that, but it does seem a little hypocritical, in my opinion, to ask people to live closer to central San Antonio when you live in the suburbs. His comment on not building highways is also hard to grasp. Keeping vehicles moving lowers NOx emissions as compared those same cars idling in traffic jams along smaller roads.  

4. There was discussion on asthma deaths and high ozone but no one on the panel mentioned that there is very little link between high ozone areas and asthma rates. According to the CDC, Texas has some of the lowest asthma rates in the country.

Here are some links to a couple of asthma studies in Texas.     
And from my website:

5. Dr. Thomas Schlenker's quote (SA Express-News) of “Suburban sprawl is just killing us,” struck me as being just a little over the top from my perspective. I question how he wants to stop San Antonio from growing, given our strong economy and an increase of families flocking to our great city? Not everyone wants to live in apartments and not everyone works downtown. There are large employers, such as Valero Energy and USAA that are located in the suburbs of San Antonio. If employees purchase homes nearby, they aren’t driving any greater distance than someone living near downtown. With shops, grocery stores and other services available in the suburbs, those of us who choose to live there, often don’t drive more than a mile or two to access them.

As a life-long asthmatic and concerned citizen, I agree that cities should continue to reduce their emissions and we should all work harder to pollute less.  San Antonio is demonstrating that we are doing so, thanks to CPS Energy, cleaner burning vehicles and other industries in our area that are making yearly reductions in NOx and VOCs. Even so, if the EPA continues to “lower the bar” for eight hour ozone thresholds, there is no way we can guarantee that we will not have a few high ozone days per year. Even if the city of San Antonio shuts off our electricity, forces people not to drive their vehicles and closes all businesses on high ozone events, we will not be able to stay in attainment due to transported, background ozone.

I would like to see the EPA consider changing their "non-attainment" rules as stated below:

It is a scientific fact that ground level ozone can form in the presence of NOx and sunlight (UV). It is also a known fact that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can elevate and extend that chemical process.
While cities and regions across the country can lower their anthropogenic NOx and VOC emissions, the amount of sunlight and weather related factors that can cause ground level ozone are beyond our control. These factors are "Acts of God" and can change a city's ozone levels from acceptable to exceeding the 8 hour standard, even though that city's emissions remain constant. It is also a fact that cities located in southern latitudes are more likely to have high ozone events due to their longer summer season. Furthermore, foreign transport of pollution has been documented and continues to contribute to background ozone levels. 

When a city has been determined as exceeding the three year, 4th highest, 8 hour average of acceptable ozone levels, if they can demonstrate that they are making reductions in NOx and VOC emissions every calendar year forward, then they can stay in attainment status. Since ground level ozone can only form in the presence of NOx, this will insure that eventually ozone levels will continue to fall throughout the country. Under this new method of evaluating attainment, when meteorological conditions that cause high ozone events do occur, cities and industry will not be penalized for conditions beyond their control.

Mark Langford