Dallas is a city at war with its air. Of sixty-two U.S. cities whose ozone levels surpass the federally mandated safe ozone levels, Dallas ranks fourteenth. As a result, the city is caught in the grasp of huge double pincers: either facing sanctions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forbidding the construction or expansion of any industry that would add to the ozone problem, or spending the millions of dollars it would take to abide by the EPA’s rules to reduce ozone. And some scientists are beginning to question whether the EPA’s controls have any effect at all on the amount of ozone in the air.
Dallas exceeded the federal ozone limits for merely twenty-four hours in 1987, and those offenses were spread out over nine days during the summer months. But to the EPA, that’s enough. By federal taw, Dallas had to develop a plan to keep the violations from happening again. The EPA will decide by March whether the plan is acceptable; if it is not, the economic sanctions will be applied the first of September.
Vic Argento, a civil engineering instructor at the University of Texas at Arlington, thinks the EPA’s rules are wrong-headed. “It’s ridiculous,” he says, “to have any economic penalties or controls based on something that happens only a few hours on a few days of the year.” And, Argento says, the scientific reasoning behind the EPA’s method of controlling ozone is not correct.
At first glance ozone doesn’t seem to be that bad-it’s just three oxygen atoms stuck together. Unfortunately, ozone reacts with everything: tires and electrical insulation (one reason they crumble with age), and the internal lining of the lungs (where it can cause scar tissue).
Ozone is a tricky pollutant because it doesn’t come directly out of the tailpipes of cars or the smokestacks of industries. Ozone is formed when volatile hydrocarbons-evaporated gasoline, paint thinner, car windshield cleaning solution, a portion of a car’s exhaust-mix with nitrous oxides (the suspected primary cause of acid rain, also emitted in car exhaust), and then are exposed to sunlight. But heat speeds up the reaction, so our hot summer days exacerbate the problem. In cooler weather, mainly in the winter, the chemicals that make ozone hang in the air as Dallas’s brown cloud.
The EPA tries to control ozone by limiting the amount of volatile hydrocarbons in the air. But even though Dallas and most other cities are abiding by the EPA’s rules, ozone is not decreasing. “As far as I know there is no place that has attained approved ozone levels by using hydrocarbon controls,” says Argento, who has spent the last eight years gathering information on ground-level ozone for his Ph.D. thesis. San Diego is the best example of the failure of the EPA’s controls: it has stringently abided by the rules, yet continues to have severe ozone problems.
The latest ozone-reduction plan for Dallas calls for banning windshield washer solvent, restricting the use of oil-based paints, and increasing the testing of automobile emissions. The cost of this plan will be much greater than the cost of the EPA sanctions: at least $95 million a year, with $60 million paid by motorists who will have to repair their cars to pass the new inspections.
In response to all of this, Argento just shakes his head. “If the EPA goes ahead with hydrocarbon controls only,” he says, “then they’re going to get to the point of closing down urban areas altogether.” What is the alternative? Argento thinks the EPA should put a three- to five-year moratorium on ozone controls while scientists study more effective ways to keep the ozone level down, probably by regulating nitrous oxide emissions, which would help reduce acid rain and the Dallas brown cloud as well as ozone. Dallas city council member Jerry Rucker agrees with Argento’s reasoning. “Ten years from now I think society will look back and see that this whole ozone affair is unreasonable,” he says. Rucker thinks that the EPA’s ozone policy evolved from regional political disputes between the South and the Northeast during the Seventies and early Eighties when industries and population were flowing from the Eastern Seaboard to the Sunbelt. The Yankee politicians, facing both declining economic wealth and an eroding population base, searched for a way to penalize the South. “It gives a new meaning,” Rucker says, “to the term ’polit-ical’ science.”