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Mild ozone season so far for Gregg, other East Texas counties

Rainfall and continued use of equipment that’s reduced local smokestack emissions are producing a mild ozone season so far in Gregg and four surrounding counties, state environmental agency data shows.

With the three ozone monitors for Gregg, Harrison, Rusk, Upshur and Smith counties producing a so-called design value of 65 parts ozone per billion parts air, work by the former coalition known as North East Texas Air Care appears to be yielding the clean-air dividends it was designed to accomplish.

Panola County was not part of the air care coalition, informally called “NETAC” and was never in jeopardy of falling into nonattainment status with the Clean Air Act as an individual county.

Nonattainment regions in Texas are multicounty areas around Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Nontattainment status restricts the flow of federal funds for highways and requires potentially expensive auto emissions tests at annual vehicle inspections.

High local readings so far this year are 74 ppb at the monitor at East Texas Regional Airport and 80 ppb at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport on April 9. The trigger number for nonattainment, however, is reached by a complex averaging of the fourth-highest readings over a three-year period, so those individual high readings are meaningful only in that long-range average.

The five counties were in a status called near-nonattainment during the mid-2000 decade but staved off the status with an Early Action Compact. That was an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in which polluting industries here took voluntary steps to reduce pollution emissions.

That occurred under the leadership of a five-county coalition called North East Texas Air Care, which enlisted Eastman Chemical Co.-Texas Operations and other local polluters and local elected officials in the voluntary effort. The Early Action Compact expired at the end of 2012, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental protection agency.

“I remember when we were struggling to get it down to 75 (ppb),” Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said Thursday.

Stoudt was the co-chairman of NETAC.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement, and certainly positive change, in our ozone emissions in East Texas in the last 15 years,” he said. “And those (ozone) measurements certainly show that.”

The area has had no Ozone Action Days this year, when local ozone levels spike and residents are asked to curtail burning trash, running landscaping equipment or washing clothes during the hottest part of the day. But Ozone Action Days typically started arriving locally toward the end of July each year.

“They could be around the corner,” Stoudt said.

But weather patterns, which play a starring role in the risk of high ozone levels, have helped keep readings down.

“If we’re going to continue to get these pop-up storms and this rain ... if that continues, that’s certainly going to help us maintain our low ozone measurements,” Stoudt said. “We’ve already got warnings coming in this weekend from the Gulf of Mexico. Weather and rain can make all the difference in your ozone (level). And if you do what you have to do on the ground, as most of the industries in this area have, it can help make the difference. And that’s what’s happened here.”

NETAC never formally disbanded, but it hasn’t met since 2016.

“The Legislature did away with the funding,” the judge said, noting that finance stream once ensured engineers to conduct computer modeling and airplanes to monitor from the air.

The three ground monitors — the third is in Karnack and notoriously picked up ozone blowing in from Louisiana refineries — continue to take readings.

“I think now you just monitor, and that’s what we’re doing now,” Stoudt said. “And if it starts changing again, we want to be on the front end. And we will be, because we continue to monitor.”

The judge still asked residents to keep their washing and other small polluting activities to a minimum during the hottest part of each summer day.

“It’s small activities like that,” he said. “Yet, it was 104 degrees (Wednesday) on my temperature gauge. ... And if you’ve got a bad muffler on your car, go get it fixed. All those small things can add up to a major difference when you’re in a county of 130,000 people. And you add Smith County, it’s 240,000. In this five-county area, I think there is a half-million people.”

ArtWalk fills downtown Longview with creativity

Downtown Longview buzzed with summer creativity Thursday night as ArtWalk made its return.

Artists and their creations lined the sidewalks and filled the Longview Museum of Fine Arts for visitors to browse.

The next ArtWalk is scheduled for Oct. 10.

Airport director: Envoy Air to keep midday flights at East Texas Regional; passenger numbers up

High passenger use will keep afternoon flights in and out of East Texas Regional Airport on the schedule for the foreseeable future, airport Director Roy Miller said Thursday.

“We’ve kind of got it on a semi-permanent basis,” Miller said of midday service by Envoy Air — a subsidiary of American Airlines — which operates flights to and from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. “We’ve seen our passenger numbers go up. Our parking lot is more full than it usually is, so we’re actually making good use of the new schedule.”

The flight schedule now has a jet leaving for DFW at 6:34 a.m. daily and a return flight landing at the Longview airport at 12:23 p.m., reboarding and leaving for DFW. A flight touches down in Longview at 5:43 p.m. and departs at 6:17 p.m., and the last flight of the day lands in Longview at 10:03 p.m. and stays overnight for the 6:34 a.m. departure.

“You can leave in the morning at 6:34 (a.m.), get to Dallas around 7:30 (a.m.) and can catch a flight home at noon,” Miller said. “It’s a really good schedule for us, and I hope the public continues to use it so we can keep it.”

The midday turnaround flight was added during 2018 as a provisional measure in response to increased boardings and deboardings.

“We worked for a couple of years to get that thing on a permanent basis,” he said.

For the year to date, East Texas Regional has logged 23,788 boardings and deboardings. That’s a 22.4 percent increase over this point in 2018. June alone saw a 5.4 percent increase over June 2018, with 4,754 people stepping on or off at the county-owned airport.

Miller said both business and leisure traveling are holding up their ends.

“I think it’s an even mix of our market, of business and leisure,” he said, adding the full parking lot indicates fewer local people are opting to drive to the airport in Irving — and making the 120-mile return drive home after flights back to Texas. “Parking’s free, so that’s a little less they pay to fly out of East Texas Regional.”

Wet Northeast Texas: no burn bans so far in summer 2019, with more rain on way

Burn bans that typically dominate East Texas in summer are all washed up so far this year in Gregg and surrounding counties.

With the National Weather Service showing the Longview area’s rain total at a fraction below 10 inches above the yearly average as of Thursday, burn bans don’t appear likely to make a return soon.

The weather service reported 35.94 inches of rain recorded at East Texas Regional Airport as of Thursday. That’s 9.99 inches above the 25.95 inches considered normal by this time of year.

Texas A&M University’s Texas Weather Connection index showed all of East Texas in the zero to 300 average range on the Keetch-Bryam Drought Index. A range of 400 is considered a mild drought on the scale, while the maximum of 800 is an extreme drought.

Officials in Gregg, Upshur, Harrison and Rusk counties all said Thursday they have not enacted a burn ban in 2019. Panola County Judge LeeAnn Jones did not return messages left throughout Thursday asking about burn bans there, but the Texas Forest Service website shows no burn ban in Panola County right now.

“It’s been too wet,” Mandy Duke, assistant to the Rusk County Commissioners Court, succinctly put it.

Her counterpart in Upshur County, Kristin Culberson, said when it rains, it pours.

“In fact, we’re more on the side of sliding off the hill,” she said. “I’m a farm girl. For years, we’ve held our breath through the Fourth of July, hoping the county doesn’t burn off because of fireworks. So, that didn’t even come into play this year.”

Harrison County Judge Chad Sims indicated he’ll take a wet summer over a series of burn bans any year.

“I’m not sure we’ve had two whole weeks without rain yet,” Sims said. “Our humidity is so high right now, and so there’s more moisture in the air. And here we’re in for another inch this weekend from that storm in the Gulf.”

Trump abandons bid to include citizenship question on census

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump abandoned his controversial bid to demand citizenship details from all respondents in next year’s census Thursday, instead directing federal agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.

“It is essential that we have a clear breakdown of the number of citizens and non-citizens that make up the United States population,” Trump said at a Rose Garden announcement. He insisted he was “not backing down.”

His reversal comes after the Supreme Court blocked his efforts to include the citizenship question and as the government had already begun the lengthy and expensive process of printing the census questionnaire without it.

Trump had said last week that he was “very seriously” considering an executive order to try to force the question’s inclusion, even though such a move would surely have drawn an immediate legal challenge.

But he said Thursday that he would instead be signing an executive order directing agencies to turn records over to the Department of Commerce.

“We’re aiming to count everyone,” he said.

The American Community Survey, which polls 3.5 million U.S. households every year, already includes questions about respondents’ citizenship.

Critics have warned that including the citizenship question on the census would discourage participation, not only by those living in the country illegally but also by citizens who fear that participating will expose noncitizen family members to repercussions.

Keeping the prospect of adding the question alive could in itself scare some away from participating, while showing Trump’s base that he is fighting for the issue.

Trump’s 2016 campaign was animated by his pledge to crack down on illegal immigration, and he has tied the citizenship question to that issue, insisting the U.S. must know who is living here.

An executive order, by itself, would not have overridden court rulings blocking the question, though it could have given administration lawyers a new basis on which to try to convince federal courts the question passes muster.

Trump had previewed his remarks earlier Thursday at a White House social media event, where he complained about being told: “’Sir, you can’t ask that question ... because the courts said you can’t.’”

Describing the situation as “the craziest thing,” he went on to contend that surveyors can ask residents how many toilets they have and, “What’s their roof made of? The only thing we can’t ask is, ‘Are you a citizen of the United States?’”

The Census Bureau had stressed repeatedly that it could produce better citizenship data without adding the question to the decennial census, which had not been done since 1950.

The bureau recommended combining information from the annual American Community Survey with records held by other federal agencies that already include citizenship records.

“This would result in higher quality data produced at lower cost,” deputy Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin wrote in a December 2017 email to a Justice Department official.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, ultimately rejected that approach and ordered the citizenship question be added to the census.

Trump’s administration has faced numerous roadblocks to adding the question, beginning with the ruling by the Supreme Court temporarily barring its inclusion on the grounds that the government’s justification was insufficient. A federal judge on Wednesday also rejected the Justice Department’s plan to replace the legal team fighting for inclusion, a day after another federal judge in Manhattan issued a similar ruling, saying the government can’t replace nine lawyers so late in the dispute without satisfactorily explaining why.

Refusing to concede, Trump had insisted his administration push forward, suggesting last week that officials might be able to add an addendum to the questionnaire with the question after it’s already printed. He has also toyed with the idea of halting the constitutionally mandated survey while the legal fight ensues.

Trump has offered several explanations for why he believes the question is necessary to include in the once-a-decade population count that determines the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives for the next 10 years and the distribution of some $675 billion in federal spending.

“You need it for Congress, for districting. You need it for appropriations. Where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons,” he told reporters last week, despite the fact that congressional districts are based on total population, regardless of residents’ national origin or immigration status.

If immigrants are undercounted, Democrats fear that would pull money and political power away from Democratic-led cities where immigrants tend to cluster, and shift it to whiter, rural areas where Republicans do well.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday called Trump’s efforts “outrageous” and accused him of pushing the question “to intimidate minorities, particularly Latinos, from answering the census so that it undercounts those communities and Republicans can redraw congressional districts to their advantage.”

“He thinks he can just issue executive orders and go around the Congress, go around established law and try to bully the courts,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. He predicted the effort would be thwarted by the courts.

House Democrats next week will vote on holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Ross in contempt for their failure to comply with congressional subpoenas investigating the issue.

Alarmed by last week’s change of course by the administration, the plaintiffs in the New York census citizenship case already have asked U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman to permanently block the administration from adding the question to the 2020 census. Furman has set a July 23 hearing on the request.