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.”