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New non-attainment rules might not affect Wise drivers

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, April 20, 2013

Despite being placed in non-attainment zone for ozone standards by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it looks like Wise County may dodge several rules regarding vehicle emissions, including tailpipe testing.

DRIVE ON - Wise County drivers and service stations look to avoid rules regarding tail pipe emissions test or lowered speed limits, but any new or expanding industries will have stricter rules regarding ozone-causing pollutants. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

DRIVE ON – Wise County drivers and service stations look to avoid rules regarding tail pipe emissions test or lowered speed limits, but any new or expanding industries will have stricter rules regarding ozone-causing pollutants. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

In all the other counties in non-attainment zones, vehicles must undergo tailpipe testing as part of the yearly state inspection. It costs drivers about $20 more, and forces stations that do the inspections to invest in new equipment.

Last year Wise County became the ninth county in the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex to receive the designation.

But the non-attainment area already has enough vehicles covered in the tailpipe testing program to meet the standards of the Federal Clean Air Act, without adding Wise County vehicles to the list. The agency charged with implementing the new rules is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

“We don’t have any plan to implement these plans if the EPA doesn’t want us to,” said Donna Huff, an air quality planning section manager with TCEQ.

Another rule Wise County won’t have to adopt is gasoline retailers adding vapor recovery systems at the pump. Since vehicles now carry on-board vapor recovery, it would be redundant to force this on fuel stations.

“It depends on where pollution is coming from,” said Jennah Durant, an EPA spokesperson. “In most of the DFW region, the biggest sources are cars and trucks and things on the road.”

But in Wise County, the EPA found that the main contributor to pollutants that cause ground level ozone is large industry – primarily oil and gas.

Sources that produce 100 tons per year or more of volatile organic compounds or nitrous oxide would have to adopt control technology. New industry that produces this much pollution would have to reduce emission somewhere else in the non-attainment area to offset any pollution from a new facility.

“This will affect major industrial sources that are either making a major addition to an existing facility or coming in as a new facility,” said David Brymer, TCEQ air quality division director. “They will have to go through additional permitting requirements. This could affect whether or not new industry wants to move into the county.”

Elevated levels of ground-level zone are created when nitrous oxide or volatile organic compounds bake in the sun. This causes a range of respiratory problems, especially in the young and elderly, and can also damage vegetation and animal life.

DON’T SOUND THE ALARM

While it might pose extra expenses for industry, the decision to not include tougher auto emissions standards is good news for people driving older vehicles that might not pass the tailpipe test – including fire departments.

Chico mayor J.D. Clark was concerned about the effect such a regulation might have on rural fire departments.

“I was worried that the new rules might sideline some rural fire departments’ vehicles,” Clark said. “Most of our departments are volunteer-based and some of them use older, diesel vehicles that might not pass the new emission standards. Many departments wouldn’t have enough money to purchase new vehicles or equipment.

“But now it sounds like we won’t get vehicle testing. Instead it will be industry-source targeted.”

NO BRAKING FOR OZONE

Another concern for drivers was speed limits being lowered on the highways that run through Wise.

When many of the DFW counties were first placed in non-attainment, speed limits were typically lowered five miles per hour on most major highways. But that’s changed.

“Years ago, we would lower speed limits,” Huff said. “But we no longer lower speed limits. No one lowers them anymore for environmental reasons.”

Speed limits are now lowered for safety and traffic flow reasons. It’s left in the hands of the agency that oversees those roads, whether city, county, state or federal.

UP IN THE AIR

When it comes to air pollution, science isn’t always clear-cut.

As soon as Wise County was placed in the nine-county non-attainment region for ozone pollution, local leaders began challenging the decision.

There were no ozone monitors in the county at the time. EPA scientists found that Wise County was in violation using readings from an ozone monitor located near Eagle Mountain Lake.

With no monitor in the county, they created models demonstrating how pollution formed in Wise County was causing high levels of ozone in northern Tarrant County.

Wise County commissioners and elected officials from across the county filed resolutions against the ruling. TCEQ filed suit to prevent Wise County from receiving the designation. The final ruling is still in limbo as it circulates through the judicial system.

“We challenged in court the EPA’s decision that designated Wise County in the non-attainment region,” Brymer said. “But we can’t sit and wait for the courts to decide because we have a federally-mandated deadline to meet.”

Even though TCEQ disagreed with some of the evidence presented by the EPA, they still have to move forward with implementing new rules for Wise County to follow regarding the production of pollutants associated with creating ground-level ozone.

Much like the pollutant in question, the fate is still up in the air.

And once a county is designated in non-attainment, is it ever possible to get out of it?

“It’s certainly possible,” Durant said. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort in a lot of areas. And an ever-increasing population complicates it.”

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