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Houston Puts Plan in Place to Address Its Air Quality

Sat November 26, 2005 - West Edition
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HOUSTON (AP) Houston, which remains among the nation’s smoggiest cities, is switching its focus from trying to meet federal air quality standards to putting the health of its citizens first, the city’s mayor announced.

“It’s going to be ambitious,” Houston’s Mayor Bill White said of the city’s new air quality plan. “We are trying to identify the most dangerous of the pollutants so we can put public health first.”

The city hoped to have hybrids account for almost half of its vehicle fleet, convert diesel engines on specialty vehicles through a state program and give bonuses to city contractors who use clean construction equipment.

Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, also will make sure the most pressing health issues related to air quality are the ones studied by “disinterested, qualified scientists,” and will expand air quality monitoring and reduce diesel emissions and particulates.

“There is a tremendous amount of effort going into improving Houston’s air” Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Spokesman Terry Clawson said.

Elena Marks, director of health policy for the city of Houston, said the new plan, which involves spending more city money and finding private partners, will allow more freedom in addressing local air quality issues. She said grant money to address environmental issues often limits how it can be used. The city’s commitment will allow more freedom, she said.

“What we are trying to do is not just set out ideas that we wish the air would be cleaner, but here are things we are going to do,” she said. “We want to hold ourselves accountable for achieving them over the course of the year or at least getting them … under way. And we want to measure the results and then go forward from there.”

Marks wants to get the city “ahead of the curve” and stop “being reactive.”

White compared the city’s new air quality plan to a business plan.

As part of that plan, White wanted to hire a toxicologist, put more city money toward legal expenses to take action against those who aren’t complying with air quality standards and make enforcement a priority.

“More of the city’s money and expertise and resources is going to be devoted to addressing … air pollution,” he said. “In the old days, I would say what we did worked, but we probably didn’t prioritize the resources in a way that was driven by public health reasons. It was driven by you have got to take so many water samples.”

White said the changes are necessary because “The air quality in Houston is not acceptable.”

Federal officials on Nov. 14 said the greater Los Angeles region surpassed Houston and the San Joaquin Valley as the nation’s smog capital.

Houston and the San Joaquin Valley, which in recent years rivaled or surpassed Los Angeles as the country’s smoggiest areas, ranked lower this year.

The EPA this year switched from measuring smog over a one-hour period to measuring it over an eight-hour span. Under the old system, Houston would have edged out Los Angeles for the top spot by violating the standard on 33 days compared with 30 days.

Jim Marston, the Texas director of Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy group, said he’s pleased with Houston’s plan.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited about an initiative of this type,” he said. “It’s not only innovative. It is also smart.”

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