If North Texas fails to reduce smog levels by the end of 2026, the industries most responsible for air pollution in the region could pay $45 million in annual fines to the Environmental Protection Agency starting in 2028. 

The fees would be a result of the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s failure to meet ozone standards set by the federal Clean Air Act. Last fall, North Texas became a “severe” violator of the EPA’s 2008 ozone standards because its average smog levels lingered above the federal limit of 75 parts per billion. 

What is ground-level ozone or smog?

According to the North Central Texas Council of Governments:
“Ozone forms when emissions from transportation, industrial and commercial operations, and natural sources such as vegetation emit nitrogen oxides (NOX) and/or volatile organic compounds (VOC). These pollutants react in the presence of sunlight and heat to create ground-level ozone.”

To determine if a region has violated ozone standards, the EPA averages the fourth-worst ozone pollution days over a period of three years. In 2021, the deadline for North Texas to meet the ozone standards, its average remained at 76 parts per billion. 

Now, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and environmental leaders across the Dallas-Fort Worth region must find ways to bring the area into compliance with federal air quality standards – or face the prospect of implementing financial penalties on companies that produce the most air pollution, including power plants or cement production facilities. 

Experts working on air quality issues are still trying to understand the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Chris Klaus, senior air quality management program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which is tasked with helping local governments meet federal requirements.

Although there was a 20% reduction in vehicle traffic during the early days of the pandemic, smog levels in North Texas did not drop as air quality models expected, Klaus said. That result has Klaus and others wondering: Should governments focus less on reducing emissions from vehicles and more on other strategies, such as reducing industrial pollution?

“I’m not convinced that the models are running properly,” Klaus said. “We run those models to validate a condition that already occurred, to be able to be comfortable that the model is running right, to be able to forecast the future to see what we need to do. So if we can’t get these base cases right, then how are we going to plan our forecasting and our series of (emission) control measures that we might need to do to reach attainment?”

State officials in process of revising plans on reducing emissions

State officials are still in the early days of revising their implementation plan, which lays out strategies for reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Tune into meetings on EPA fees

The North Central Texas Council of Governments will host officials from the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to discuss Section 185 fees. The fees are financial penalties for companies contributing large amounts of pollution that leads to smog. 

There will be one meeting at 10:30 a.m. and another at 2 p.m. Feb. 17. Both will be available virtually through Zoom and in-person at the North Central Texas Council of Governments building at 616 Six Flags Dr, Arlington, TX 76011. Register here.

Those pollutants react with sunlight and heat to create ground-level ozone, which can inflame and damage airways, aggravate lung diseases and increase the frequency of asthma attacks, according to the EPA

Donna Huff, deputy director of the air quality division within the Texas Commission on Air Quality, presented a timeline of expected progress during a North Central Texas Council of Governments event on Jan. 27.

The council of governments will hold two additional meetings about the potential industry fines, known as Section 185 fees, with EPA and state environmental officials Feb. 17. 

In consultation with city officials and industry representatives, the state commission will submit revisions of its implementation plan to the EPA by May 7, 2024. Proposed revisions should be available for public comment by November 2023. 

From there, state leaders will create rules for which companies will pay fines – and how much – by Nov. 7, 2025. To avoid fines altogether, Dallas-Fort Worth must average 75 parts per billion or below by the end of 2026 to meet the EPA’s 2027 deadline. 

‘Up here so much of it is the weather’

‘During her presentation, Huff pointed to weather conditions in North Texas as a key factor in producing more smog. 

“We look at what causes the high days, and up here so much of it is the weather,” Huff said. “It’s different in Houston, right? You get the coastal winds and here it’s a little more stagnant.”

Huff also acknowledged the COVID-19 air quality conundrum, when state officials expected a massive reduction in vehicle travel to produce fewer nitrogen oxides and improve smog conditions. 

Texas officials have indicated that their focus will soon shift to reducing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, rather than emissions from transportation that primarily produce nitrogen oxides, or NOx, Klaus said. The two main sources of VOCs are biogenics – plant and wildlife sources – and area sources, such as fabrication facilities, paint shops and dry cleaners, he said. 

Chris Klaus, senior air quality management program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, speaks to staff members representing Dallas-Fort Worth cities during a Jan. 27 meeting. Klaus and his colleagues will work with state officials on strategies to reduce ozone levels. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

“Back in the ‘90s, the plans were predominately all VOC reductions and we had what was called the NOx waiver because the modeling suggested we didn’t have to touch NOx,” he said. “The new modeling came out, and as the years went on in the early 2000s, the focus shifted to NOx strategies. We haven’t really been focusing too heavily on VOCs.”

Klaus pointed to the progress that North Texas has made to improve air quality since 1990, when the region was in the 125-130 range for ozone parts per billion. 

The council of governments has seen success with initiatives to retire vehicles and equipment with heavy-duty diesel engines; reduce traffic congestion and idling; provide funding for alternative fuel vehicles; and lead public campaigns to take fewer car trips and operate vehicles in ways that reduce emissions.

The Biden administration is also making more funding available to agencies and companies interested in building infrastructure to support hydrogen-powered vehicles, Klaus said. The government has room to crack down on vehicle inspection fraud that keeps trucks and cars without emissions controls on the road, he added. 

Klaus continues to wonder: Are these the right strategies to get Dallas-Fort Worth on the path to meeting smog standards? The region will be under pressure to meet not only the 2008 standard, but the most recent ozone limit of 70 parts per billion set by the EPA in 2015. 

“We’re committed to try to get there,” Klaus told a group of government leaders Jan. 27. “We’re so close in some regards, and so far away in others.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org

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Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...