Curse those pesky pines for ozone woes in Longview, where air quality is once again under state and federal scrutiny.
To understand why trees must shoulder their share of blame, walk into the woods and pluck a handful of long, prickly pine needles. Now inhale. Smell familiar?
The pungent aroma comes from natural chemicals known as “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs. Trees put off a variety of them, and they do everything from attracting pollinators to repelling bugs to giving pine needles their unique, piney scent.
The gases also waft into the blue skies of East Texas. Meanwhile, man-made things such as car engines, power plants, factories and oilfield equipment are pumping out chemicals of their own — nitrogen oxides, or NOx. These particles also drift into the air.
That’s when the problems start.
If the sun is shining, the tree gases react with the man-made gases to create an entirely new gas. It’s called ozone, and it has a bad habit of triggering asthma attacks, harming crops and forming smog.
“They are now saying people will actually die” from too much ozone, said Greg Yarwood, an air-quality consultant.
For a relatively rural place, East Texas has a lot of ozone.
It used to be worse.
Thirteen years ago, the amount of ozone around Longview and Tyler was reaching crisis level.
Facing the possibility of federal sanctions, local government and industry leaders came together to form the cooperative association Northeast Texas Air Care.
Group members hired Yarwood’s California consulting firm, Environ, to guide them. The stakes were high: If their plan didn’t work, the Environmental Protection Agency would implement a set of strict rules that would handcuff efforts to lure new businesses and build roads.
Presumably, clear-cutting the trees was not an option. The group had to address the man-made share of the problem.
Luckily, executives with two of the biggest polluters — the massive Martin Lake power plant in Tatum and Hallsville’s Pirkey power plant — were on board. They cleaned part of their lignite-firing operations, and Longview’s Eastman Chemical Co.-Texas Operations reduced its emissions soon thereafter.
“They did that in the early part of this decade, and around that time ozone levels definitely dropped,” Yarwood said. “The power plants and Eastman all made NOx reductions of at least 30 percent.”
The efforts paid off, and the Longview-Tyler area met the federal standards. But it was too soon to declare “mission accomplished.” Just about every five years, the EPA tightens its ozone standards, sending East Texas officials scrambling to meet ever-stricter rules.
Today, the area is back on the wrong side of federal regulations.
We’re coming up short.
The state agency that monitors air quality in Texas has recommended that Gregg, Rusk and Smith counties be declared “nonattainment” — meaning the area does not meet the standards set by the EPA’s scientists.
Gov. Rick Perry’s office must decide by March whether to forward the “nonattainment” recommendation to the EPA. After that, the feds will have one year to decide whether to implement costly sanctions.
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be painful,” said Rick McKnight, environmental manager for the East Texas Council of Governments and an Air Care member. “We definitely have to find emission reductions in our area.”
McKnight, Yarwood and others with Northeast Texas Air Care have good news, however. They say that if this summer’s peak ozone season is as mild as the one in 2008, then the Longview-Tyler area should be in the clear.
The Martin power plant, one of the nation’s top energy producers and also one of its worst polluters, is planning further NOx reductions by 2010. A new state law that takes effect next year also could have a major impact in the natural gas-rich region of East Texas. In 2010, emissions-cutting upgrades will be required for all equipment that extracts oil and gas from the ground.
Air Care officials are cautiously optimistic.
“Hopefully the area will be compliant with the standard,” Yarwood said. “We need to be very watchful toward things that could operate against that trend.”