The passage of Labor Day marked the unofficial end to the ozone season in Northeast Texas, in a summer that drew just one Ozone Action Day in Northeast Texas.
The relatively mild smog levels this summer can be attributed to factors including weather and lowered emissions from local smokestacks.
The latter was achieved under the guidance of a multicounty coalition of government and polluting industry members.
Northeast Texas Air Care formed in 1996 to stave off a designation of nonattainment with the Clean Air Act.
The air care group, known as NETAC, lost funding in the 2017 state legislative session and has largely been dormant. The coalition had worked closely with staff from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“The important part in this is we had a lot of industry that took place in those NETAC meetings and did some compliance and some investing,” NETAC co-chairman and Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said. “That’s the whole key, is industry working with government to come up with solutions that can maintain our attainment.”
A designation of nonattainment with Clean Air Act ozone standards brings heightened restrictions on auto inspections, squeezes the flow of federal highway dollars and imposes other regulation on residents and commerce within the nonattainment boundary.
“Throwing an area in nonattainment is an absolute economic disaster for a community,” Stoudt said. “And that’s why NETAC has been so valuable.”
While expressing pleasure at the dwindling numbers of ozone action days the past few summers, Stoudt said Thursday he’ll be asking the Legislature to restore funding for NETAC.
“When the Legislature scrapped the funding, it put our effectiveness on hold,” Stoudt said. “The good news is we’ve been hanging around in attainment (status).”
NETAC’s legal counsel, Jim Mathews, said NETAC never formally disbanded, it just had no reason to meet once funding dried up.
Funds from the state to NETAC, through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, totaled almost $2.5 million from 1996 through 2003, according to the latest records available on NETAC’s website.
NETAC did not pay for the three ozone monitors that still are taking hourly smog readings at a site in Karnack and at the airports outside Longview and Tyler.
“The TCEQ and EPA will be looking at those,” Stoudt said.
The NETAC funding largely was to pay engineers and other experts who developed “modeling” formulas revealing everything from how much pollution migrates here from other areas to weather analyses and local impact of the 35,000 vehicles passing through Gregg County each day.
“The Legislature ended up no longer funding near-nonattainment areas,” Mathews said. “(NETAC) doesn’t have any sources of funding anymore.”
The Austin attorney added, though, that he’s been watching air quality alerts pertaining to this area and likes what he sees.
“Y’all are in pretty good shape the last time I looked,” he said. “We’ve been classified as an attainment area; every time they’ve lowered (tightened) the standard, we met it.”
That national trigger for nonattainment status is set at 70 parts ozone per billion parts air, set by the EPA under the Obama administration. Sued by industry groups, EPA attorneys for the Trump administration told the D.C. Circuit Court it had reviewed the standard and was sticking with it — for now.
The five NETAC counties — Gregg, Upshur, Rusk, Harrison and Smith — are listed as in attainment now under the 70 ppb standard, a step up from the near-nonattainment status that prevailed here as recently as 2015.
Stoudt noted that the elected and industry officials leading NETAC still are in place for the most part and keep in touch as other state and regional issues bring them in contact. If local air quality begins to slack off, he said, NETAC can rev up again fairly easily.
“I think the skeleton is all still around,” Stoudt said. “And, obviously, we have communication with each other on a lot of subjects. If additional funding is provided, we’ll crank back up.”
State Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, said there had been no special legislation to defund NETAC during the 2017 legislative session.
“It appeared to us some funding for TCEQ was changed, and TCEQ actually pulled funding from various entities that are part of their umbrella,” Dean said, after noting he plans to ask fellow lawmakers convening in January 2019 to “ ... do everything we can to get that (funding) reinstated. ... I’m definitely calling TCEQ to get that reinstated.”
News-Journal archives show that 2013 brought two Ozone Action Days — one in late August and another in early September. Archives also show the area had no Ozone Action Days in 2014.
East Texas Regional Airport south of Longview has averaged 64 parts per billion over the past three years, with its fourth-highest reading in 2018 reaching 67 parts per billion.
A Tyler Pounds Regional Airport monitoring site also has averaged 64 ppb, while a monitoring station in Karnack about 14 miles north of Marshall has averaged 61 ppb, according to the TCEQ.
The EPA uses an average of the fourth-highest ozone readings in the three most recent years to determine whether to place a region into non-attainment status with the Clean Air Act.