The testimony sounds the refrains of industry groups: Tightening the country’s smog standard would be too costly and isn’t necessary for public health.
But these comments weren’t from industry. They were written by the chairman of Texas’ environmental-protection agency.
The state is as aggressive as some trade associations in battling a proposed tightening of health standards for ozone, the lung-damaging gas in smog that costs billions of dollars to reduce. Officials there have spoken before Congress, hired a consultant to question the health benefits of a more stringent standard — a firm that did the same for the American Petroleum Institute — and introduced bills to fundamentally change how ozone is regulated nationwide.
This is a long-standing strategy for Texas, where power plants, cement factories, refineries and other facilities let loose far more ozone-causing pollutants from their stacks and vents than in any other state, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Texas officials have butted heads with the EPA over ozone since the 1970s.
“They’ve been fairly consistently against clean-air protections,” said Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Though ozone levels are markedly better compared with past decades, parts of Texas have some of the nation’s highest readings. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental-protection agency, said in an emailed statement that it’s trying to ensure rules are necessary before they’re imposed. The agency, which goes by TCEQ, argues that the EPA has not proved ozone is harmful below the current standard of 75 parts per billion.
“TCEQ has concluded that there will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current standard,” the agency’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, said in written testimony for a December Senate hearing.
It’s a stance public-health groups and medical associations do not share. The American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Thoracic Society — a respiratory disease group — are among those supporting a standard even lower than the 65 to 70 ppb the EPA proposed.
They’re concerned about studies linking ozone at concentrations below the current standard to health problems, particularly asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Research also suggests ozone can increase the risk of cardiac arrest.
The independent advisory panel of scientists and doctors who review ozone studies for the EPA has recommended since 2006 — under President and former Texas Gov. George W. Bush — that the standard be set between 60 and 70 ppb. Panel members warned last year that, even at 70 ppb, “there is substantial scientific evidence of adverse effects.”
Texas doctors have become increasingly vocal on the issue. This year the Dallas County Medical Society called on the EPA to tighten the standard and urged the state to take more aggressive actions to battle smog, rather than smog rules.
“Everyone’s aware of the really serious health effects in this area,” said Dr. Robert W. Haley, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.