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TribBlog: New EPA Rules Could Put More Cities Over Pollution Limits

The ongoing battle between the EPA and Texas got a little hotter today, and it could get even more intense as the TCEQ works on a plan to comply with stricter ozone regulations.

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced today it would take over the permitting of two more large Texas plants — the latest round of an intensifying battle between Texas and the EPA.

But tensions between Texas and the EPA could also rise over another issue: ozone regulation. Stricter air quality standards expected in August from the EPA would put more areas of Texas out of compliance with federal rules. Depending on how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality draws the boundaries, Austin, El Paso, Waco, San Antonio and Northeast Texas could become ozone "non-attainment" zones, as could the slightly less-polluted areas of Corpus Christi, the Big Bend, Victoria and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Currently, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Beaumont-Port Arthur exceed the federal primary, or public health-related, ozone threshold.

The TCEQ held a public meeting in Austin today — one of a series around the state — to get input about how it should approach implementing the federal rules — specifically, how it should draw boundaries around the areas that exceed the EPA's pollution limits. The commission, and eventually Gov. Rick Perry, will recommend Texas' designations to the EPA by January 2011.

The meeting attracted about 50 people and was low-key, reflecting few of the fireworks that have recently been flying between Texas and the EPA.

David Brymer, the TCEQ Air Quality Division director, noted that Texas air quality has been improving since 2000, even in the face of a growing population — a line Perry often uses.

But the improvements are thanks to the federal government's standards, said Eva Hernandez of the Sierra Club, who spoke at the meeting. "We applaud EPA's new standards on their proposed ozone rule," Hernandez said, but Texas still has "a long way to go."

Erik Hendrickson, a technical specialist in the TCEQ's Air Permits Division, said the expansion of non-attainment areas could affect new coal plants and other industrial polluters applying for permits in those areas when the re-designation takes effect in August 2011. But imposing stricter rules on new plants "really is a fringe method" for controlling air quality, he said; existing plants are where most pollution will come from.

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