Clean Air: Whose Business Is It?
By Lily Auliff
Youve probably seen the commercials by now. Cute kids shouting the slogan Clean Air: Its Everybodys Business. A great push for educating the public and alleviating pollution in the region, right? Although some in the environmental community agree, others are questioning the source behind, and the effects of this $700,000 television, radio, and print advertising campaign sponsored by the Business Coalition for Clean Air (BCCA).
Who is the BCCA?
We were formed in the summer of 1999, says Elizabeth Hendler, manager of environmental programs at the GHP. The Greater Houston Partnership had identified clean air as its number one priority for 2000. We began to realize that it was no longer enough to just talk about cleaning up the air. It was time to start working on a sensible plan to do it.
More than 80 local businesses are BCCA members. The businesses that joined say that it is really an economic development issue for Houston and their area. When you cant get the best and the brightest folks to come to Houston because of a reality or a perception of air pollution, that is an important concern for business, explains Hendler. The other thing is that they live here too, and they raise families. It matters to them for their own families and their employees.
However, Jim Blackburn, local environmental attorney, says the GHP and the BCCA have, consistently worked against the regions efforts to clean up the air. These are not people working for our collective health, he explains. These companies are working for their individual profits and, in my opinion, the BCCA is a front for the profit goals of its members.
When the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) released the draft SIP last fall, BCCA submitted 149 pages of comments about the plan, many of which intended to soften controls on industry. Their comments on the SIP to the TNRCC are extensive, says George Smith, air quality chair of the Houston Regional Group of the Sierra Club. They acknowledge that they need to clean up, but are reluctant to do all they need to do in the time they need to do it in.
Hendler says that the BCCAs comments were not meant to weaken the SIP, rather to substitute less expensive controls for the most costly ones. We think that there is a better way to reach attainment, and thats what were working on, she says.
The BCCAs biggest battle has been against the required 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from point sources. Claiming that reaching the 90 percent level would cost too much, BCCA advocates an 80 percent reduction instead.
The BCCA Appeals Group, which includes several BCCA members, is currently suing TNRCC in order to cut several industrial air pollution controls in the SIP, including the 90 percent point source reduction. Although the BCCA Appeals group is not officially affiliated with BCCA, they share the same ultimate goals, according to Hendler.
This is a serious lawsuit that could have important, negative consequences in our efforts to clean up the air in Houston, says Blackburn. This is the action of a group that is against cleaning up the air in Houston, regardless of what they say. This is a case of their action speaking louder than words speaking very eloquently about their pro-industry, anti-clean air position.
Hendler does not see a conflict between clean air and the lawsuit. I think it is unprecedented around the country for a business group such as the BCCA, and the individual members of the BCCA, to step up to the plate and say, yes, we think we can reach an 80 percent level of control. The message we are bringing to the public is that industry is willing to do its part, but it cant be done alone. An 80 percent reduction is still far more than is being called on for the average citizen, for on-road mobile sources, and for non-road mobile sources to do.
BCCA also promotes extending the SIP deadline. Officially, the regions federally mandated attainment year is 2007, meaning that the area must demonstrate clean air throughout 2005, 2006, and 2007. But a provision in the Clean Air Act allows for up to two one-year extensions, if there is one or no ozone non-attainment days in 2007. Environmental groups would like to see attainment as soon as is feasible, while the BCCA is pushing to extend the SIP deadlines as long as is legally possible.
Putting things off longer means dirtier air for all of us who breathe it, says Smith.
The BCCA also argues that the complicated modeling TNRCC used to determine how much air pollution must be reduced was flawed. They have hired an independent firm to rework the numbers. One of their hopes is that by doing more studies and more modeling, we will magically find that we dont have to clean up as much as we think we do, says Smith.
In addition to the current advertising campaign, BCCA has produced a brochure titled Cleaner Air for the Greater Houston Area, and members have presented at hundreds of speaking engagements, according to Hendler.
Hendler says their brochure is informative and unbiased, but some have noticed a pro-industry slant. A page entitled What Effects will the Control Plan have on the Community? lists nine negative economic consequences of implementing the SIP, such as Restricted Future Growth, and Less Competitive in a Global Market, followed by just four positive impacts. BCCA public presentations focus on the economic and social costs, rather than the benefits, of clean air as well.
Why the emphasis on the costs of cleaning up the air? Coming into compliance is going to be extremely hard on this region, explains Hendler. The SIP that the TNRCC has proposed is going to be costly. Its going to be expensive, and its going to require lifestyle changes on the part of the citizens. We all have to understand exactly what the costs and the difficulties are going to be, and then put our nose to the grindstone and work toward achieving that.
The Campaign and its Impact
Some environmentalists do see the value in the campaign, even if its source is questionable. Im glad to see that they are spending money on promoting clean air, says Smith. If this effort is successful in drawing consumers together, then we are closer to having an approved clean air plan. If it brings people along to obey the speed limits, get their cars inspected, then Im for it.
Others disagree. It will create the false impression that the BCCA, and by inference the Greater Houston Partnership, is working positively for clean air, adds Blackburn. These people are not being truthful and are trying to conceal, rather than be honest about, their actions relative to clean air. In my opinion, BCCA is doing this media blitz to shore up their reputation and create the illusion that they are truly concerned about our health rather than because of any true belief in the value of clean air.