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Austin area has dangerously high levels of air pollution, according to new EPA standards

Bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway at dusk with an exit sign at right
Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
The Austin area is no longer meeting acceptable levels of air quality standards for fine particulate matter, also known as “soot,” pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced long-awaited updates to air quality standards for fine particulate matter, also known as “soot,” pollution. The new, tighter limits mean some places that previously had acceptable levels of pollution are no longer meeting health standards.

Austin and its surroundings are among those places.

Before this month's rule change, regions were determined to have harmful air quality if they recorded 12 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air. The new standard considers 9 micrograms per cubic meter to be unhealthy.

One microgram is one one-millionth of a gram. Fine particulates are less than a 10th of the diameter of a human hair. It is its small size, in part, that makes fine particulate matter so dangerous.

“These are very tiny particles that can bypass your lungs' defenses and cause very serious harm,” Luke Metzger, head of Environment Texas, said. He called the new standards “a huge victory for human health and the environment.”

The EPA says fine particulate matter is “associated with increased infant mortality, hospital admissions for heart and lung diseases, cancer, and increased asthma severity.”

Under the new standards, Austin and surrounding areas will need to reduce the levels of fine particulate matter in the air. Nationwide, the EPA says, the reduction could prevent 4,500 premature deaths and result in 800,000 fewer asthma attacks annually by 2032.

One challenge will be finding out where the pollution is coming from.

Shift of focus

You may not have heard much about fine particulate matter in Austin, but you’ve likely heard of smog or “ozone” pollution.

The city, and surrounding region, has long struggled to stay within safe guidelines for smog pollution. Health officials issue frequent “ozone action days” to encourage vulnerable people to take precautions, or even stay indoors, when pollution is especially high.

Despite that, the region has managed to stay in compliance with federal ozone guidelines — or, in the language of environmental regulation, being in "attainment."

But the focus on ozone has meant fine particulate matter levels received less scrutiny, said Anton Cox, air quality program manager with the Capital Area Council of Governments.

Fine particulate matter “hasn't been something that the Austin area has really put much focus on because we've always been able to stay below those federal limits,” he said.

In recent years, Travis County air monitors have recorded an average of 9.3 micrograms per cubic meter, half a microgram over the new standard. Those levels have stayed near constant in the area for at least the last 14 years, according to Cox.

He said the fact that levels have remained unchanged despite the region’s growth makes determining its source more of a challenge.

Fine particulate matter is different from many other kinds of air pollution because it is defined by its size, he said, not by the chemicals that comprise it.

"It could be from a wildfire, it could be from dirt," he said. "What they're really measuring is the size of those particles."

Some local sources of fine particulate matter pollution include: vehicle tail pipes, factories, oil wells, construction sites, quarries or even dust from the Saharan desert that visits the region annually.

The fact that it can be tricky to track down sources of the pollution is one of the arguments that industrial lobbyists made against strengthening the standards last year.

But just because the pollution can come from many different sources doesn’t mean those sources can’t be identified.

Cox said the tasks before local governments now is determining main sources so they can work on a plan to limit them.

"We’ve just gotta do more research," he said.

That's complicated by the fact that Travis County is the only county in our urban area with monitors tracking soot pollution, according to Cox.

“They don't actually have data on Williamson, Hays, Caldwell" counties, he said.

Those neighboring counties may also have pollution levels above the new EPA standard. That would put them at risk of also being labelled in "nonattainment" of the new guidelines when the EPA issues its official designations.

The stakes of 'nonattainment'

The stakes are high for local governments that don’t get fine particulate matter pollution under control.

Once a region is determined to be in violation of air quantity standards, the federal government can withhold funding for transportation and other projects or refuse to issue permits for initiatives that would exacerbate the pollution.

And the clock is ticking.

Cox said the area has a year before the EPA issues its formal nonattainment designation. After that, he said, local officials should have about a year and a half to develop a plan with state regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to tackle the problem “before there are greater consequences.”

The EPA estimates that 2032 is the earliest year states will be required to meet the new standards.

At a meeting this month of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO, CEO Ashby Johnson said talks with state regulators were just starting.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality “got this [news of the new standards] the same time we did,” he said. “They don't have enough information yet, either.”

Johnson said the TCEQ would be present at an April CAMPO meeting to discuss the issue.

According to Cox, any big infrastructure projects that are already underway, like Austin's Project Connect rail plan or the state’s I-35 expansion project, will likely not see federal approval withdrawn due to the new standards.

But Metzger said the new standards still bolster the position of Environment Texas and other groups that oppose the highway expansion project and have filed a lawsuit to stop it.

"Tougher soot standards are definitely something they should factor into a new [environmental] analysis” of the highway project, he said.

‘Heading in the right direction’

Metzger said he believes Austin, and the country, are well positioned to address fine particulate matter pollution despite the challenges.

Among other things, he said, new industrial pollution controls and the electrification of vehicles and lawn equipment will help.

“The EPA is adopting stronger pollution standards for big trucks and cars," he said. "We already see a lot of people switching over to electric leaf blowers and lawn mowers, so we’re heading in the right direction.”

But the EPA doesn’t appear to share that confidence.

In a forecast issued along with the new standards, the EPA projected Travis County will remain in nonattainment of the new standards starting in 2032, the year all states will likely be required to meet the standards.

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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