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Officials want leeway to meet clean-air rules

by ERIC HANSON on 4/11/01.

Common sense, solid science and economic reality should all play a role in developing solutions to reduce air pollution in the Houston area.

That was the consensus voiced by five members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the county judges of Brazoria, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties and others at a recent meeting concerning clean-air issues.

Houston is under a federal mandate to reduce emissions by 2007.

To meet those standards, a plan announced in December by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission calls for sweeping cuts in industrial emissions, lower speed limits, expanded tailpipe testing, morning bans on the use of certain equipment and many other measures.

The plan, which is subject to approval in October by the Environmental Protection Agency, affects eight counties and is designed to reduce ozone below national levels.

Failure to reduce the levels could result in the loss of federal highway funds.

Brazoria, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties have filed a joint lawsuit challenging the plan. A coalition of companies and corporate organizations also has gone to court to try to block it.

Brazoria County Judge John Willy said his county's inclusion in the plan is not fair because the county's pollution levels are below the national average.

"In our county, total emissions are down 30 percent since 1995. Yet no credit is given for these achievements," Willy said.

He also said it is not realistic to treat all eight counties in the region as equals when some contribute more pollution than others. Also, a county that reaches its attainment levels still would face punitive action if another county did not.

"If Houston could reach its attainment required by TNRCC, and little Liberty County did not, should Houston lose its highway funds? I don't think so," Willy said.

Implementing the commission's plan would cost Brazoria County thousands of jobs and billions of dollars over the next 10 years, he added.

Fort Bend County Judge Jim Adolphus, who also has criticized the plan, said the county is under the gun to clean its air when there is no actual evidence that the air quality is below standard.

"According to the TNRCC and the EPA, Fort Bend County has never had a test device within this county," Adolphus said.

Calling it one of the most important issues to be considered by the Congress this year, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, said it is possible to attain clean air without resorting to measures that will cost jobs and impose hardships.

"These goals are not mutually exclusive. We can do both if we simply apply common sense and good science to the challenges," he said.

DeLay, the House majority whip, cautioned that the difficulty of the task should not be underestimated.

Another member of the panel, Rep. Bill Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the energy and commerce committee, said EPA officials should consider the economic impact that the plan could have on Houston and other areas.

Tauzin said communities should have flexibility in attaining clean-air standards.

"If you can get the same results with a different plan, you ought to be able to consider the different plan," he said.

Tauzin said that if refineries in Houston and other petrochemical cities such as Baton Rouge are forced to shut down because of excessive emissions, the entire country could suffer from fuel shortages.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, said the EPA should work more closely with cities in meeting clean-air goals. He also believes more comprehensive scientific research is needed to get a clearer picture of the region's air quality.

Better science was a theme throughout the discussion as several officials criticized the EPA for relying on dated computer models for setting air standards instead of actually testing the air in different parts of the Houston area.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said the Clean Air Act is up for renewal next year and he would like to see a provision exempting highway projects from being halted if an area fails to meet federal air standards.

He also said the EPA should realize that different parts of the country have unique air problems.

"It is amazing that Houston is held to the same clean-air standards as the Grand Teton Mountains," Culberson said.

The meeting was held in the chambers of the Fort Bend County Commissioners in Richmond under tight security conditions. Members of the audience had to pass through a metal detector before entering.

Other members of the panel were Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis; Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler; Herb Appel, president of the Fort Bend Economic Development Council; Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound
Economy; and Jess Hibbetts, vice chairman of the Brazosport Chamber of Commerce.