Al Armendariz: Dallas-area clean air plan failing. Now what?

At about 20 locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, small white trailers sit outdoors near highways, parks and airports. Inside these trailers are high-tech analyzers that take small puffs of air and analyze them for a series of chemicals. Year after year, the data collected by these analyzers tell us that our summer air contains high levels of an odorless, colorless gas called ozone.

Medical studies are clear that the number of asthma attacks, emergency room visits and fatal cardiovascular incidents increase on days with high levels of ozone. Doctors and nurses in cities such as Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles see the painful, sometimes tragic, implications of what the high-tech monitors are measuring. Even those of us who don't get sick feel the impact financially – for instance, when workers stay home with sick kids or when we pay higher costs for insurance plans and county hospitals.

The federal government has placed this region on a list of metro areas under a deadline to reduce summertime ozone. While long-term trends show that ozone levels are slowly dropping, they aren't going down fast enough to meet national standards or to amounts doctors tell us are safe.

In 2007, the state environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, published its latest clean-air plan for this area, a plan designed to eliminate our high ozone days by this summer.

Although no blueprint can guarantee what will happen in the future, this one was supposed to be strong enough to provide "assurance" that high ozone levels would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the ozone pollution this summer has pushed us – once again – over national standards. I was among those who years ago warned the TCEQ that its plan was unlikely to succeed; sadly, we were right.

The failure of the clean-air plan won't become official until year's end, when the state submits data from the analyzers to the federal government. But the analyzers already have seen plenty of orange- and red-level ozone days, especially near Fort Worth and Denton, and the area is bound to have more between now and summer's end.

If we don't solve this problem, we risk losing federal highway funding – which would be economically crippling – and being classified in the same pollution category as Los Angeles and Houston. That would be bad for tourism and limit the ability of our major manufacturing employers to expand facilities and create new high-paying jobs.

It is time for our area leaders to create a permanent regional working group under the Council of Governments to solve our air-quality problem. In the past, local clean-air committees were created as federal deadlines approached, but they dissolved as the deadlines passed and members left to work on other priorities.

What we really need is a permanent mechanism that will bring together elected officials, business leaders, medical professionals and environmental groups on a continuous basis to create recommendations for local, regional, state and federal clean-air policy.

I am confident that we can simultaneously meet clean-air standards, experience robust economic growth and reduce health care costs. But it is only going to happen if this region takes ownership of our air quality problem. Otherwise, Gov. Rick Perry and the three appointees he has selected to run the TCEQ will continue to be the only ones with real influence on what is done or not done to clean our air.

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