Dallas-Fort Worth counties don’t meet Biden administration’s new soot pollution limits

dfwnewsa | February 8, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Concrete batch plants are among the industrial facilities that produce particulate matter, or soot, pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new air quality standards will affect how counties, including Tarrant, monitor and reduce pollution. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)
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If air quality doesn’t improve in North Texas over the next two years, Tarrant and Dallas counties will fail to meet the federal government’s new standards for harmful soot pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency says its stricter limits on fine particulate matter, or soot, pollution will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays nationwide over the next eight years. The final rules were announced Feb. 7 but likely won’t go into effect until 2026. 

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Soot can get deep into people’s lungs and bloodstreams, and scientific studies have tied particulate matter to a wide range of respiratory, cardiovascular and organ ailments. 

Particulate matter pollution disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income people, who are more likely to live near industrial sites that produce soot, according to the EPA. Those facilities include power plants, cement plants and refineries, as well as sites with high concentrations of vehicles. 

Jim Schermbeck, director of the North Texas environmental activism group Downwinders at Risk, has advocated for stricter limits on particulate matter pollution for decades. He applauded the EPA for tackling what he believes is the country’s most insidious and widespread form of air pollution.

“They were trying to walk a fine line between wanting to bring the standard down to be more protective of public health but not causing a lot of consternation at the local level in trying to meet what they might consider, for right now, an unrealistic standard, especially in an election year,” Schermbeck said. “I think they have walked that tightrope pretty well.”

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Jim Schermbeck, director of environmental advocacy organization Downwinders at Risk, speaks in support of Echo Heights residents during a Fort Worth City Council meeting on Nov. 14, 2023. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

Under the new rules, counties that report an annual average of particulate matter pollution above 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air could face penalties for violating the Clean Air Act. That’s down from the previous standard, which capped soot pollution at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. 

Ten Texas counties, including those that are home to major urban areas like Austin, Houston and El Paso, would not meet the new rules based on data collected from EPA air monitors between 2020 and 2022. Tarrant and Dallas are on the cusp of meeting the new standards, reporting 9.1 and 9.4, respectively. However, the EPA will base its decisions on data collected between now and 2026.

With hundreds of millions of federal dollars pouring into air quality projects, the EPA expects Tarrant and Dallas counties to meet the standard by 2032 — as would 99% of counties across the U.S.

The rules have faced pushback from nationwide industry groups that say installing pollution control technology to comply with the stricter rules will cost them millions and hurt the U.S. economy. 

Josh Leftwich, president and CEO of the Texas Aggregates & Concrete Association, said his members are fortunate because Texas already has stringent air quality standards and permit requirements administered by the state environmental commission. Many areas of Texas are already in compliance with the new standard, he added, even as the state is experiencing its highest demand ever for construction materials like concrete and cement. 

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“Although there are many unknowns regarding how the new standard will impact permitting programs, TACA will continue to work closely with all regulatory agencies to ensure that the environment and the most sensitive communities are protected,” Leftwich said in a statement. 

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is tasked with helping local governments meet federal air quality standards. The new rules came as no surprise to Jenny Narvaez, the council’s air quality program manager, who has been following the rules since they were first proposed in early 2023. 

Narvaez’s team has already met with officials in Fort Worth and Dallas about how they might determine the causes of higher particulate matter readings at monitors near their downtowns. The council of governments will also work closely with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to determine a plan to meet the standard, which could be stalled by lawsuits, Narvaez said. 

“I anticipate that there will be more conversations with the cities and possibly the counties,” Narvaez said. “(We’ll) potentially be able to use some funding to help figure out why those monitors are so high. It’s just cutting it close.” 

There are only six particulate matter monitors across North Texas, Narvaez said, with another three in Ellis, Kaufman and Navarro counties that are not producing any data. Chris Klaus, senior air quality management program manager for the council of governments, said during a Jan. 11 meeting that his team is looking into why the EPA-installed monitors are not functioning. 

Six monitors installed by the Environmental Protection Agency monitor for particulate matter, or soot, pollution in North Texas. Another three in Ellis, Kaufman and Navarro counties do not function or produce data. (Courtesy image | North Central Texas Council of Governments)

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Soon, the council of governments will use about $400,000 in state funds to set up additional monitors around existing downtown Fort Worth and Dallas monitors to determine where emissions are coming from, Klaus told the Regional Transportation Council. 

“Are they internal to the region? Are they transported (by) Sahara wind dust or west fires that might be influencing it?” Klaus said. “Or are there things that we might be able to do to lower those emissions?” 

Schermbeck will push the EPA and other agencies to place particulate matter monitors in hot spots most affected by industrial pollution, including neighborhoods like Joppa in south Dallas and Echo Heights in southeast Fort Worth. Because there are only six working monitors in the region, officials are underestimating the scale of the problem, he added. 

“The EPA’s numbers of how many people will be saved every year are just the tip of a huge iceberg of human health that’s being affected,” Schermbeck said. “You don’t have to die from this stuff to get a really bad health effect from it. I think it has far, far ranging impacts on everything, from transportation to zoning.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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