In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated nine counties in North Central Texas in nonattainment status for the pollutant ozone, in accordance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). In 2012, another county was added to the list. A nonattainment area is one that is considered to have air quality worse than the NAAQS—standards that are designed to protect human and environmental health.
The air quality problem in North Texas is centered on ozone, which forms when nitrogen oxides and/or volatile organic compounds combine with sunlight and intense heat. Four main sources of ozone-causing emissions include on-road mobile sources like cars and trucks; non-road mobile sources like construction equipment; point sources such as electric generating utilities and industrial boilers; and area sources like solvent use and agriculture. If individuals, local governments and businesses can make a commitment to reduce emissions, it could make a profound impact on air quality—and the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) is determined to help make it happen.
NCTCOG works in cooperation with federal, state and local partners to ensure all air quality requirements are met and strives to achieve attainment of the ozone standards as early as possible. Whitney Vandiver, a communications specialist with NCTCOG, says their goal is to be at the forefront of air quality planning. As such, the team is constantly reviewing potential new programs and policies that will help contribute to a better quality of life for all North Texans.
Communications Supervisor Pamela Burns says that means creating a broad range of programs and strategies targeted toward a variety of different groups. “We understand not everybody wants the same thing, so we work with local governments and the Public Relations Task Force to determine our target audience across the region, and then find what is most important to them and what programs will benefit them most,” she states. Education is an important part of the strategy, according to Burns. “We have to make people understand why reducing ozone concentrations is important—we have to make it hit home,” she explains. “We can then encourage changes in daily behavior.”
Coupled with other tactics to reduce emissions, ranging from energy and fuel efficiency to advancing clean technologies, there’s no doubt that great strides have already been made in ozone reduction. In fact, Jody Loza, an air quality analyst with NCTCOG, notes that since tracking of ozone levels first began in 1998, a significant improvement has been made—from a level 102 in 1998 to 87 last year, but more remains to be done.
Getting the public involved—and committed to air quality issues—is key. Loza sites the Regional Smoking Vehicle Program (RSVP) as one that has garnered the general public’s attention. “They really love it and it gives us a real opportunity to inform and educate,” she says. “We get a lot of positive response.”
RSVP is designed to inform vehicle owners when their vehicle may be creating excessive smoke and emitting pollutants. The program allows residents to report vehicles in the area emitting visible pollution, which is in violation of the state’s Smoking Vehicle Statute. Once the vehicles are reported, the owners are notified via literature provided by the NCTCOG about possible emission problems they may be unaware of in order to take corrective action. It’s working so well that when a vehicle was rigged for the filming of a commercial by the NCTCOG, a concerned citizen reported the vehicle for excessive smoking.
Helping communities understand the importance of health and environmental issues associated with high ozone levels is the goal of Air North Texas, a regional clean air public awareness campaign formed by the NCTCOG with support of the Air Quality Public Relations Task Force.
Principal Transportation Planner Jenny Narvaez notes that although high ozone concentrations impact everyone, they are especially dangerous for children, the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Ozone exposure can make it more difficult to breathe deeply, causing shortness of breath and pain, coughing and a sore or scratchy throat. Breathing ozonepolluted air also aggravates lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Air North Texas encourages individuals to use mass transit; carpool or vanpool; limit or avoid idling; obey the speed limit; bicycle or walk instead of drive; consider clean fuels and technology; tell others about the importance of improving air quality; conserve electricity by turning off lights or using less water; combine errands; and maintain vehicles by getting them inspected, keeping tires properly inflated and changing filters frequently.
Narvaez says that even small daily changes can make a difference. For her and her colleagues, staying passionate about clean air is simple. “We live here and we have to breathe the air,” she comments. “We have children. That’s what keeps me motivated.”
Loza agrees that air quality is important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. “It’s like looking at the big picture: air, water, electricity,” she says. “It’s about livability. I want to help improve quality of life overall.”
“Most people that go into public service want to make a difference in the community,” notes Burns. “I don’t think we’re any different. When I see a sticker on a truck that’s using alternative fuel or I have a speaking engagement, I know we’re making advancements.”