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Pollution blowing in from elsewhere could put Victoria over EPA standard (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
June 22, 2014 at 1:22 a.m.
Updated June 23, 2014 at 1:23 a.m.

Cyril Durrenberger talks about testing the air of Victoria  inside a stationary monitoring unit in Cuero. Inside is equipment to test the air, gather the samples, average the information and log the data.

Ongoing research suggests Victoria's difficulty in meeting the Environmental Protection Agency's air quality standards may be the result of air pollution blowing in from the surrounding areas.

The research comes as the EPA considers strengthening air pollution regulations.

"If the EPA lowers the standard, we might be able to say, 'Look, this is how much Victoria is contributing, and this is how much is coming in. And we can't do much about what is coming in from outside,'" said Cyril Durrenberger, a research scientist at the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

Durrenberger has been collecting air samples from sites in Inez, Coleto Creek power plant and Cuero and has found that less than 10 percent of ozone is emitted by Victoria sources. Monitoring stations at each location measure wind speed and direction, hydrocarbons, methane, ozone and nitrogen oxides.

"Ozone is our main pollutant of concern for this area. Hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides combine together in the presence of sunlight and high temperatures to form ozone. Ozone is not directly emitted," Durrenberger said.

Ground-level ozone is the main ingredient of urban smog and poses a significant health risk, especially for children with asthma. In 2008, the EPA strengthened its air quality standards for ground-level ozone from the 1997 standard of 84 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion.

"Since the mid-1970s, Victoria County has encountered problems with attaining the Environmental Protection Agency's national air quality standards for ozone formation," according to the Air Victoria website.

In 1978, Victoria County was designated as non-attainment by the EPA, meaning the county fell outside the air quality standard. Victoria was not designated as attainment, or within the standards, until 1995. The county has conducted research on where the excess ozone in the county originates and established a plan to stay within the standard because of its history of non-attainment.

In addition, the state's environmental agency has used state money to help areas near non-attainment to stay within the standard through research and education, said Durrenberger, who previously worked at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

After reviewing new science on the health effects of smog, the EPA is considering further strengthening the ozone standard to 60 to 70 parts per billion, which could put Victoria out of compliance once again. Falling outside of compliance would mean spending money to get back in compliance through implementation of stricter vehicle and industry standards.

Durrenberger's research not only aims to find the sources of air pollution but also the most cost-effective ways of reducing it.

So far, his research suggests the most cost-effective way to reduce ozone is by lowering nitrogen oxide emissions, which largely come from vehicles.

"Nitrogen oxide emissions are a function of how much fuel you burn. If you travel fewer miles or have a more fuel-efficient car, you lower nitrogen oxide," Durrenberger said. "The immediate thing to do is reduce the number of miles traveled, but that's hard to do."

State environmental agency data suggest that Victoria has lowered its ozone during the past five years.

Though it is difficult to pinpoint what has led to the decrease, Durrenberger said, it could be the product of fewer vehicle emissions from stricter federal standards on fuel economy and emission controls, meteorological variance and Victoria education programs aimed at encouraging people to carpool and reduce the amount of miles they drive.

"We're seeing that gradually decrease as times goes on. That's saying that the effects of these programs we've put in place over the years are being seen," Durrenberger said.

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