Bexar County’s air quality has officially been downgraded, triggering stricter federal regulations to bring the region’s air quality into federal compliance.
In a long-awaited move this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved Bexar County from “minor” to “moderate” ozone deficiency after the region had failed to significantly improve its air quality over the past three years.
One of the most direct impacts on Bexar County vehicle owners will likely be annual vehicle emissions inspections, which will be added to the state’s existing inspection program.
While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — which now has the regulatory role of enforcing EPA Clean Air Act regulations in San Antonio — has not added Bexar County’s regulations to its state implementation plan However, other Texas counties with default status have vehicle emissions inspection programs in place.
Emissions inspection itself isn’t all that expensive — it’s about $11.50 to $18.50 per vehicle, according to the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which facilitates regional transportation planning for the greater San Antonio area. But it could come at additional costs for residents who need to make repairs to their vehicles to meet emissions standards.
And while there’s no funding at the city, county, or state level to help residents make needed repairs, there used to be, said Lyle Hufstetler, natural resources project coordinator for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, who is responsible for monitoring and Monitoring is tasked with examining local air quality.
Hufstetler said the state legislature ended Texas’ aid program in 2017.
“A portion of the state’s vehicle inspection fees went to a fund that would help low-income drivers fix or replace their vehicles,” Hufstetler said, “but it’s been five years since that’s gone, so it looks like as if we’ll have to develop something on the spot – apart from a resumption of the program during this next session.”
From marginal to moderate
The road to moderate non-achievement has taken years.
EPA and TCEQ officials warned Bexar County officials in August 2021 that the move would come after local efforts to improve air quality fell short.
Hufstetler clarified that the reclassification does not mean that air quality in San Antonio has deteriorated.
Instead, the demotion came about “because it has been three years since we were officially appointed [as being in nonattainment]’ Hufstetler said. And the longer a region fails, “the more stringent your rating becomes.”
In fact, the region lowered ozone levels from 74 parts per billion, or ppb, to 72 ppb just last fall, according to AACOG data, but it hasn’t been able to reach the federal threshold of 70 ppb, which the EPA says helps people with chronic protect lung diseases and prevent the development of new diseases.
Ozone is a key component of smog that irritates and damages the lungs and has been linked to chronic conditions like asthma.
The EPA classified Bexar County as Marginally Not Reached in 2018. The reclassification to moderate failure sets a new September 24, 2024 deadline for San Antonio to meet the 70-ppb standard, Hufstetler said.
If it doesn’t, Bexar County will be downgraded to serious noncompliance again, with additional federal requirements — and costs.
Limited local authority
TCEQ is now required to provide the EPA with a model showing a long-term plan to improve air quality in Bexar County through November 2023, which the agency must implement over the following year.
The city doesn’t have a regulator to get businesses or individuals to comply with air quality standards, Kyle Cunningham said, a health program manager for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
Metro Health runs a Clean Air Campaign to teach residents how to reduce emissions and marks Ozone Action Days, which are declared when weather conditions are likely to combine with pollutant emissions to create more ozone.
“Because we don’t have a regulator, our primary role is education,” Cunningham said. “We’re trying to do as much of that as we can.”
The county is in the same boat, said Monica Ramos, public affairs officer for Bexar County.
Enforcement is “primarily a matter for AACOG and the state,” Ramos said. “In the county, we’re just making sure we comply with state laws and federal regulations around air quality.”
Because of their limited powers, the city and county can only request changes at the state level beyond education, Cunningham said.
“I’m sure the City of San Antonio will be asking the state to implement the program in this upcoming legislative session [that assisted low-income drivers] back in place because there is a need,” she said. “Hopefully our representatives in this state legislature will push that forward for us.”
Efforts to improve local air quality are complicated by the ongoing debate over where the region’s ozone-causing pollution originates.
AACOG estimates that activity in San Antonio accounts for only about a fifth of the ozone recorded, with the rest coming from outside the area — mostly Mexico or other states.
AACOG cites data from the pandemic to back its case: Despite drastically falling road emissions across San Antonio in the early days of COVID-19, Bexar County still experienced more days of high ozone in the spring of 2020 than the year before.
Despite AACOG’s arguments, however, the EPA’s stance is that regardless of where the pollution originated, it’s still up to the state of Texas to ensure San Antonio meets federal air quality standards.
In 2020, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the EPA when it ruled against Texas, which argued in 2018 that since most of San Antonio’s pollution rises from Mexico, it should not be deferred to a minor non-compliance.
However, this argument still seems to prevail locally.
The city uses AACOG data when discussing local pollution sources, and AAMPO uses AACOG data for its own vehicle emissions reduction studies and programs.
During a public meeting earlier this week, Clifton Hall, manager of AAMPO’s transportation planning program, noted that AAMPO estimates that only 30% of the one-fifth of the ozone attributable to San Antonio’s sources comes from “mobile source emissions.” originates – ie from vehicles. In other words, only about 6% of local ground-level ozone is attributable to vehicle emissions under AAMPO and AACOG standards.
Still, Hall said, local authorities are “doing everything we can to limit our piece of the pie, but we all have to work together to get there.”