Why Our Air is Bad, How We Can Fix It

Texas emits more carbon dioxide than any other state, and Dallas-Fort Worth’s ozone pollution is the seventh worst in the nation. We look at why our air is so bad and what can be done to fix it.

BEHIND THE MASK:At Children’s Medical Center Dallas, young patients who suffer from asthma attacks are given medicated aerosols through an oxygen mask. Adrian Geter, 4, required treatment on his birthday.

Toyin Sosanya will never forget the day her 2-year-old daughter almost suffocated. Little Myra started gasping for no apparent reason. The gasps persisted in the local emergency room, even after the doctors—and Toyin, a pharmacist—suspected asthma and gave Myra a dose of albuterol through an inhaler. No effect. They put the inhaler to her mouth and tried again, then a third time. They continued this as they loaded Myra back in the car and sped to Children’s Medical Center, where doctors, fearing for her life, gave Myra an IV of epinephrine, or adrenaline, which finally returned her breathing to normal.

But soon after, Myra’s twin sister, Tyra, developed asthma. Their older sister, Alexis, then 4, already had it. Toyin missed a lot of work ushering her children between hospital visits, hoping to figure out what caused the attacks. Finally, Toyin got her answer: the doctor said the attacks had to do with Dallas’ poor air quality.

“Maybe you should consider moving out of Texas,” the doctor told her, “somewhere where the air is better.”

Texas is a notoriously filthy state. We emit more carbon dioxide than any other state in the country. In fact, we emit more carbon dioxide, 1.5 trillion pounds a year, than all but six nations in the world.

But ozone is a bigger problem. Cars, trucks, and power plants emit the nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons that become ozone in the atmosphere. Dallas-Fort Worth’s ozone pollution is the seventh worst in the nation, according to the American Lung Association’s 2007 “State of the Air” report—which is worse than we fared in 2006, when Dallas-Fort Worth ranked eighth. Our ozone is worse than cities with larger populations such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Ozone pollution scars the lungs and leaves them susceptible to respiratory infection. Children are particularly vulnerable, especially asthmatic children. This partly explains why Children’s Medical Center Dallas has one of the busiest pediatric emergency rooms in the nation. Its No. 1 cause for admittance is asthma attacks, which have become so frequent that the hospital has an asthma treatment room in the ER. During the summer, when ozone is at its worst, the brightly lit room is strewn with toys and filled with children receiving medicated aerosols through oxygen masks. The Allergy and Immunology Clinic at Children’s fields 60 to 70 requests for new patients a week. And there are nearly 60,000 estimated asthmatic children in Dallas County.

Dr. William Neaville is an immunology specialist at Children’s. Neaville had never heard of “ozone alert” days (during which it’s considered unsafe for asthmatics or even the general public to venture outside) until he moved to Dallas four years ago from Madison, Wisconsin. Neaville has not conducted a study, but he says anecdotal evidence suggests that in the days after an ozone alert, the ER sees a spike in admittance. Still, he is careful to say asthma attacks are “multifactorial.” An attack can be triggered by allergies. (Another reason why Children’s ER is one of the busiest in the nation: not only are we a polluted region, but Dallas-Fort Worth is the second-worst city in the nation for allergy sufferers.) Attacks can be triggered by exercise, mold, perfume, cigarette smoke, viral infections, or, a lot of times, a combination thereof. This makes it difficult for the doctors at Children’s to say to what extent bad air aggravates asthma. But other doctors and scientists aren’t so circumspect.

BREATHE RIGHT: Why did Children’s build an asthma treatment room within its ER? Because one-third of all cases admitted to the hospital are suffering from asthma or a similar respiratory disease.

In 1993, the University of Southern California studied the effects of air pollution on children. The scientists followed more than 3,600 children from fourth grade to 12th grade in Los Angeles, the nation’s pollution capital. In January, they published their findings. Two things stood out. First, the study found that children who lived approximately 1,600 feet from a freeway had a lung capacity up to 7 percent smaller than children living nearly 5,000 feet from a freeway. This diminishment is akin to what would be found in other areas, says Dr. Jim Gauderman at the University of Southern California, one of the study’s authors. Seventy percent of North Texas’ air pollution comes from vehicle emissions, similar to Los Angeles’.

Second, Gauderman and his team found what might be a link between air pollution and new asthma. That is to say, not only does air pollution trigger an attack in a child with asthma, but air pollution may actually cause asthma in a child who didn’t have it. If true, this may explain why some children develop asthma even if no one in their family has it, even though it’s largely considered a hereditary condition.

Scientists here have found other reasons to be concerned about North Texas’ air quality. A researcher now at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has shown a link between bad air and heart ailments in adults. Another study suggests a link between particle pollutants and lung cancer among women who do not smoke.

And bad air is also bad for business. That’s why a group of Texas business leaders fought TXU’s proposed expansion of coal plants this winter. The group, now known as Texas Business for Clean Air, promotes environmentalism in all its forms. It has to if it wants to keep businesses here, says Garrett Boone, chairman of The Container Store and co-chairman of Texas Business for Clean Air. Boeing officials told him one of the reasons the company chose to locate its headquarters in Chicago and not Dallas a few years ago was because of Dallas’ reputation for bad air. Since the airplane manufacturer would have an impact on North Texas’ air quality, any EPA sanction against the region would hinder the company’s operations. This makes Boeing and other companies “nervous” when considering Dallas, Boone says.

In short, air pollution is a tangible problem. It is time for the solutions to be just as tangible. Progress has been made in Texas but much work remains. Following is a look at where the problems lie, how to fix them, what happens if we don’t, and just who is keeping North Texas from being a cleaner place to live.

TXU Isn’t the Real Problem
TXU raised a furor in the months before this year’s legislative session. Houston Mayor Bill White and former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller formed a coalition to stop the construction of 11 new coal plants in central and east Texas. Legislators filed bill after bill hoping to curb or monitor the emissions that were sure to come from the energy company’s expansion, already fast-tracked by Governor Rick Perry. But guess what? Coal plants don’t make Dallas’ air nearly as dirty as cars do. By some estimates, as much as 75 percent of Dallas’ pollution comes from mobile sources: the vehicles we drive and the vehicles that build the roads so we can drive more. And we are driving more. The Texas Department of Transportation says North Texans in 16 counties drive 106 million miles a day, double what we drove in 1980. And that figure could double again by 2012.

Of course, there are more of us driving. In 2002, North Texas had 3.6 million registered vehicles on the road: cars, trucks, 18-wheelers, and construction equipment. In four years, we added 300,000 vehicles to that total. That’s a lot of cars. But, as it turns out, we need to worry most about 10 percent of them.

CLEANING UP: State Senator Kip Averitt (R-Waco) says voters must put pressure on Austin to improve the air quality that casts a haze over Dallas.

The 10 Percent Rule and What It Means to You
The 10 percent rule says that 10 percent of the vehicles cause 50 percent of North Texas’ problem. These are older vehicles, clunker cars, and sulfur-belching 18-wheelers at least 15 years old, built when emissions standards were less stringent. One 10-percenter emits the pollutants of 20 new vehicles, says Chris Klaus, the point man for air pollution at the North Texas Council of Governments, the entity that oversees the region’s air quality.

So what to do about it? Two laws are on the books that try to reduce emissions, each one passed in 2001 and each one creating a program best represented, as most air-quality programs are, by acronyms: TERP (Texas Emissions Reduction Plan) gives money to dirty 18-wheelers and helps retrofit, or “clean up,” their engines; LIRAP (Low Income Repair and Assistance Program) gives money to cars that don’t pass inspection in the hopes that that money will be used to bring the car into compliance, or, failing that, the owner will use the money to buy a newer car. But neither program has been fully funded. Dallas County, for instance, should have gotten $15 million from the state in 2006 for LIRAP. It received $2 million. The rest, county officials were told, went to balance the state’s budget. The state budget at that time had an $8.2 billion surplus.

This upset former Dallas County judge Margaret Keliher. At the Greater Dallas Chamber’s 2006 Environmental Seminar, she asked roughly 200 business leaders to demand change. “I am told that if legislators receive letters on the same issue five to 10 times, then that is an issue they will address,” Keliher said. The keynote speaker at the luncheon later that day was State Senator Kip Averitt (R-Waco), chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and a member of the Senate’s Finance Committee. “Y’all need to let the people in Austin hear you loud and clear,” he said.

Apparently, we did. Averitt authored Senate Bill 12, the omnibus environmental bill approved this summer in the Lege, which will fully fund TERP and LIRAP. But the bill does more than that. It increases the amount of money available for each program and expands the list of people who qualify for the money. For instance, if your vehicle fails inspection, you’ll still get $600 to repair it. But now you can get up to $3,500 toward a new car to replace it. And a family of four that makes $60,000 a year now qualifies for LIRAP, where before you had to be just above the poverty level to qualify.

“This bill was something I had on my agenda for quite some time,” Averitt says. “And I know there are a lot of people in the Dallas area that have this high on their list of priorities.” Loved by both business leaders and environmentalists, Senate Bill 12 was the 80th Legislature’s greatest environmental achievement.

SB 12 was also the Lege’s only environmental achievement.

Where Lawmakers Failed
The Legislature should have passed State Senator Rodney Ellis’ bill (D-Houston), adopting California’s new emissions standards. Last year, California passed legislation saying it will establish its own vehicle emissions standards beginning in 2009 and not follow the more lenient ones of the federal government. California’s goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2020—and another 85 percent by 2050. Ellis’ bill, and a similar one filed in the House by Representative Mark Strama (D-Austin), said Texas should follow California’s lead. Fourteen other states already do, including Arizona, New York, and Illinois. But both Texas bills died before their respective environmental committees. Ellis’ bill died in Averitt’s Natural Resources committee. Averitt told reporters in April that he didn’t allow Ellis’ bill out because it needed “a lot more consideration than we have time for in this session.” Money was an issue, too. The newer technology needed to meet California’s standards would increase the cost of a car. It could be as little as $300 per vehicle (California’s lowest estimate). The auto industry says it could cost $5,000 or more. But an Ellis staffer says that although these issues were important, neither is why the bill died. Swarms of lobbyists from the automotive industry made their displeasure known early and often. “And those guys have more money than the guys from the environmental groups,” the staffer says.

The auto industry is not the only lobbying heavyweight in Austin. Consider TXU. Several high-profile bills would have limited construction of the dirtiest type of coal plant; none of the bills passed. A temporary moratorium on new plants didn’t pass either. A lot of coal legislation was left pending in the House’s Environmental Regulation Committee, chaired by Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton). A group called Environment Texas, which monitors legislators’ votes, gave Bonnen an environmental rating of zero last session. The past two election cycles, Bonnen has received $9,500 in campaign contributions from TXU and, all told, more than $85,000 from the transportation, oil, chemical, and energy industries.

The Bad Guys in This Fight Will Surprise You

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is the environmental agency for the state. It is difficult to imagine another environmental agency that cares less about the environment.

Consider its “smog plan.” Dallas is, as you now know, a dirty place to live. The Environmental Protection Agency knows this and has told TCEQ to find a way to make Dallas cleaner or the EPA will reserve the right to withhold Dallas’ federal transportation dollars come 2010—as much as $400 million. So TCEQ spent the past three years creating a plan, holding meetings to debate the plan, and then tweaking it. The final draft was presented in May.

But the plan as it stands now doesn’t actually get North Texas in compliance with the EPA. It gets us close, and the EPA in similar situations in the past has said close is good enough. But this time, the EPA’s regional director, Richard Greene, sent the state a memo in late May saying he doubted TCEQ’s plan would cut it. He doubted whether it would get federal approval. The reason: TCEQ had failed to consider the impact of all those diesel engines running drilling equipment in the Barnett Shale, the natural gas field that stretches from the Mid Cities to west of Fort Worth. Nevertheless, the three TCEQ commissioners voted to approve the plan, and the commission’s chair, Kathleen Hartnett White, wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News expressing her “confidence” in this “aggressive” policy and its intent to meet federal air standards. Those who were present at a speech White gave a year ago were no doubt surprised to read that op-ed. At an environmental seminar hosted last summer by the Greater Dallas Chamber, talking about that same TCEQ plan, she told the auditorium of business leaders that Dallas wouldn’t make the 2010 standards “unless this area literally has ‘no drive’ days. That’s not a joke,” she said. “I think it’s impossible” to meet the 2010 standards.

It should be noted that the three TCEQ commissioners are appointed by Governor Rick Perry, who has questioned whether human activity causes global warming. He also fast-tracked the 11 TXU coal plants. That number has now fallen to three, one of which has been green-lighted by the state. But back when TXU wanted to build 11, and Rick Perry to wanted let the company do it, TCEQ was crafting a smog plan that simply ignored those 11 plants. The commission’s logic was that it couldn’t foresee how many of the plants would ultimately get built—or what pollution controls they might feature or whether their construction would lead to the shuttering of older, dirtier plants—so TCEQ didn’t account for them.

What will be the impact on our air quality once TXU’s three coal plants are up and running? No one knows. It hasn’t been considered.

TCEQ has an even worse record when it comes to another polluting industry: cement. In Midlothian, just south of Dallas, there are 10 cement kilns run by three companies, TXI, Holcim, and Ash Grove. Those kilns account for 21 percent of North Texas’ ozone pollution. They are the region’s biggest industrial polluters. Environmental groups sued TCEQ after its 2000 smog plan failed to meet the EPA’s standards, and, as a result, TCEQ had to publish a report looking for ways to reduce ozone emissions in the kilns. Scientists and cement executives wrote the report. Its findings, published last year by TCEQ, said affordable technology existed that would reduce emissions at the kilns by as much as 85 percent.

Instead of mandating that these measures be taken, though, TCEQ put in place cheaper ones that reduce emissions by only roughly 40 percent. This is why environmentalist Jim Schermbeck, who’s fought the cement kilns for years, calls TCEQ “evil.” But he says it’s only doing its job. “TXI has paid more than $150,000 for Perry’s campaigns,” he says.

The Good Guys in This Fight Will Surprise You, Too

Despite the willful ignorance of our state leaders, locally, politicians get it. Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, and Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, who, as a physician, sees every day what ozone does to children—they all serve environmentalism’s cause. But if you want to know who is effecting real change, look to Texas Business for Clean Air. The environmental group of elite Texas businessmen and women, formed during TXU’s proposed coal plant expansion, sways more political minds than any environmental group. They come at environmentalism by asking a question all Texans can appreciate: how does pollution impact business?

Consider what happened in Atlanta. After the 1996 Olympics, the city had 80 percent of its road projects postponed until it could come up with a smog plan the EPA liked. EPA sanctions are rare—Dallas hasn’t had one—but the prospect of such sanctions makes some companies skittish.

More than that, TBCA argues, no one wants to work in a city with dirty air, if only because of the higher health care costs. “We say there is no conflict between clean air and good business,” says Garrett Boone, co-chairman of TBCA. The group has 200-plus members statewide (including, at one time, D publisher Wick Allison, who resigned to avoid any conflicts of interest). That this group exists, “that’s huge,” says Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas director of Public Citizen, the state’s most well-known environmental group. It gives environmentalism a new face. The group this session received many letters and e-mails from legislators who said were it not for the lobbying efforts of Texas Business for Clean Air, Texas would have seen certain environmental measures fail. “Back home, [the legislators] couldn’t be seen as siding with environmental interests,” Boone says. But now they are.

“It makes me feel very optimistic. The whole discourse has changed.”

What Can We Do Next?
Get the cars with fake inspection stickers off the road.
Dallas County conducted a pilot program a couple years ago. It wanted to find those aforementioned 10-percenters. The best way to do that, it turns out, is to find the cars with fake inspection stickers. In other words, the cars that are so dirty they need to cheat to stay on the road. So Dallas County constables in Grand Prairie and Irving were trained to look for fake stickers. In two years, 849 vehicles with fake stickers were impounded in Grand Prairie and parts of Irving. Since June 2006, the North Texas Council of Governments has said it will bring the program to all constable precincts in Dallas County. But it hasn’t yet. It should. And it should expand the program to every county in North Texas and make the inspection training a requirement for all law enforcement personnel.

More cops should know NED. NED is a database the Council of Governments maintains. It monitors the inspection status of all of North Texas’ vehicles, some 15 million of them. NED is accessible to law enforcement personnel on patrol, assuming the cop has a computer in his car, which many do. A cop can punch an inspection code sticker into NED to see if the car is in compliance. Lewisville uses NED. But neither the Dallas Police Department nor the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department does. Similarly, other cities and counties have promised to adopt it but have thus far failed to do so.

Put those cool toys to use. Chris Klaus, of the Council of Governments, says he was with some Department of Public Safety employees on Earth Day. The DPS guys had this remote-controlled device. “The theory is you could put this device on an on-ramp, and it can actually read the amount of emissions that are coming out of your tailpipe,” Klaus says. Make that more than a theory.

Make road construction nocturnal. Why? It isn’t as hot at night, which means emissions aren’t trapped as easily in the atmosphere. “This could make a big difference,” Klaus says. Plus, fewer rush hour backups.

Take responsibility. It’s easy to blame the government for the bills that didn’t pass, or TXU for its expansion efforts. But we all contribute to Dallas’ air pollution, every day, with every mile we drive. Garrett Boone says that when he heard about Children’s and the asthma patients it sees, and about Texas ranking first in the nation for carbon dioxide output, he was outraged. But then he realized he had no one to blame but himself. “We had four SUVs in the driveway,” he says. Today, he has two Priuses and a Honda.


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