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New Air Rules Already Help City

BY Michael Hines and Anna M. Tinsley
by Michael Hines and Anna M. Tinsley on 12/7/00.

Stringent new environmental restrictions on Houston are already paying off for Corpus Christi.

On Wednesday, the day that the state approved the restrictions, H.E. Butt Grocery Co. scheduled an announcement that it will spend nearly $4 million to expand its bakery and tortilla factory at 102 McBride Lane, instead of building one in Houston.

Debbie Lindsey-Opel, H-E-B spokeswoman, said the company looked at several options to increase its bread and tortilla production, including the possibility of building a new facility in Houston. But several factors, including the pending clean-air restrictions on Houston, pointed to Corpus Christi as the choice.

"Houston is facing a lot of different challenges," Lindsey-Opel said. "It was an overall consideration of looking at the trends in both communities regarding air quality issues."

Simply put, Corpus Christi has fewer environmental restrictions.

The three-member Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission unanimously supported a package of restrictions to bring Houston into compliance with federal clean air standards by 2007.

The plan hits Houston and surrounding counties harder than any area in the state. The restrictions there include strict limits on vehicle tailpipe emissions, a 55-mph speed limit, and limits on construction and industrial expansion.

The regulations made Corpus Christi much more enticing for expansion, Lindsey-Opel said.

The H-E-B facility employs about 360 workers, and no new jobs are expected from the expansion.

About $2.8 million of the work will be to increase operation size by 5,000 square feet and relocate equipment, such as the conveyor system used to cool and bag bread loaves.

That will make room for a $1 million oven, replacing the old model that was first installed in 1959. H-E-B also plans to add an additional line at its tortilla making plant.

The facility already churns out 1 million bread loaves and 4 million dozens of tortillas per week, providing bread to 160 stores and tortillas to all 275 H-E-B stores.

The changes are expected to increase sandwich bread production by 20 percent and tortilla production by 33 percent.

Corpus Christi became a viable choice for the undertaking because of the city 's size and the plant's efficiency.

The facility's 24-hour, 7-days-a-week production proved its ability to handle the extra load. And recruiting a workforce is easier in a city the size of Corpus Christi than in a city of Houston's size, Lindsey-Opel said.

"Your competition is a lot stronger in a larger market," she said.

The new air quality measures approved by the TNRCC include restrictions that affect Corpus Christi, though they are not comparable to Houston's restrictions.

A statewide rule requires the sale of cleaner-burning diesel fuel used in on-road vehicles such as 18-wheelers. Cleaner-burning diesel also is required for off-road vehicles in Corpus Christi and Central and East Texas. The rule will be phased in starting in 2002 and should be complete by 2006.

The new rules also require cleaner-operating engines in heavy industrial equipment, such as forklifts and backhoes.

This rule will be phased in starting in 2003 and only apply to those who buy new equipment, which will be built to have the cleaner-operating engines, said Bill Jordan, state implementation plan team leader for TNRCC.

"This demonstrates our absolute commitment to clean air not only in the Houston area but throughout Texas," TNRCC Chairman Robert Huston said.

Rejecting Houston

A public policy research group, however, criticized the TNRCC's actions.

"(Wednesday's) vote is disappointing," said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for A Sound Economy. "It's simply another example of how pressure resulting from politics and special interests can undercut rational environmental protection."

Houston officials have denied Corpus Christi officials' claims that they lobbied to include Corpus Christi in the more stringent restrictions to prevent Corpus Christi from gaining a competitive advantage in luring new industries.

Such fears look to be valid, said John J. Plotnik, vice president of the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corporation. He said he expects more companies to spurn Houston for Corpus Christi in coming years.

"We're going to see more industries moving to Corpus Christi with their decision makers," he said. "Those company decision makers are asking themselves 'Why should we fight the smog in Houston?' "

Interested company

The same day the TNRCC made its decision, a Houston-based company spoke with EDC officials about relocating to Corpus Christi, Plotnik said.

"They're looking strongly at Corpus Christi just for that reason," he said. "They cannot function under the environmental restraints in Houston."

State officials have held public hearings around the state for the past few months to get residents' feedback on how to reduce pollution in Houston and statewide.

Now, Houston and area counties face restrictions that include significant reductions in industrial emissions and restrictions on construction and professional lawn maintenance during the April-to-October ozone season.

A work in progress

"This plan constitutes a blueprint for cleaner air and federal compliance in Houston,'' Huston said.

The overall proposal will go to the Environmental Protection Agency by the end of the month. By law, the EPA has one year to consider the proposal, TNRCC spokesman Patrick Crimmins said.

The EPA must approve the plan before the state implements the restrictions in Texas, Crimmins said. Commissioners stressed Wednesday that this proposal remains a work in progress.

A scientific review is planned for 2002 with a comprehensive evaluation - along with any needed adjustments - scheduled for 2004.

''We believe this plan can work and we believe that it will work,'' TNRCC Commissioner Ralph Marquez said. ''We will continue to be as flexible as possible, and we will continue to pursue improved scientific knowledge, but we must get the job done.''