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What the EPA's Expected Ozone Limits Could Mean for Austin

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News
New ozone restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency could put transportation projects at risk of losing qualification for federal grants.

This week the US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new limits on the amount of ozone Americans breathe. Those limits could force Austin and other Texas cities to reduce ground-level ozone pollution in an effort to mitigate the pollutant’s harmful health effects.

Way up in the atmosphere, naturally occurring ozone gas helps protect you from the sun’s radiation. But down here on the ground, manmade ozone is bad for your health.

“It causes mild impacts like sore throat, itchy eyes, runny noses,” says Adrian Shelley of Clean Air Alliance Houston. “To more severe impacts – asthma, heart attacks. Ozone is even linked to premature death.”

The EPA has found that current standards still allow unsafe levels of the stuff.
So, the agency will mandate stricter standards. That means more Texas cities will be out of compliance with federal law when it comes to ozone.

Austin, for example, is in compliance under current limits, but just barely. So far this year, Austin has the fifth highest number of high ozone days behind Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Austin has had four days of ozone level averages over 76 parts per billion during an eight-hour span, while Houston leads the state with 22 high-ozone days over that same time span in 2015, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

When cities fall out of compliance, it makes it harder to get federal funding and approval for things that could increase ozone, like road projects – something Austin desperately wants.

“The federal government, in order to get federal funding for different roads, requires you to jump through a number of hoops,” State Senator Kirk Watson said at a  clean air event attended by the Austin Monitor earlier this year. “If you go into non-attainment, you have to do more things than you’re currently needing to do, including … showing how it is you’re going to clean up the air and get into attainment. Ultimately, it could mean that you will not get the funding.”

Adrian Shelley says industry also pays a price. “New companies face stricter permitting requirements," he says. "They face what are called offset requirements which means if they want to produce new pollution in the atmosphere they need to reduce pollution elsewhere.” 

This Thursday is the deadline for the EPA to announce the new ozone standards, which are reportedly expected to limit ozone pollution to 65 or 70 parts per billion.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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