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Friday, April 01, 2005

Deadline extensions sought

Posted on Fri, Apr. 01, 2005
By Scott StreaterStar-Telegram Staff Writer

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton wants to include a provision in upcoming energy legislation allowing Dallas-Fort Worth and other smoggy regions of the country to miss deadlines mandating compliance with federal ozone standards.

Dallas-Fort Worth faces a 2010 deadline to comply with ozone regulations or face severe sanctions, including the potential loss of hundreds of millions in federal highway transportation dollars.

The proposal being pushed by Barton, R-Ennis, would allow the federal Environmental Protection Agency to extend deadlines in areas that can prove they're affected by pollution that blows in from other cities and states.

Dallas-Fort Worth officials have long claimed that pollution from Louisiana, and even from Houston 250 miles to the southeast, is at least partly to blame for the region's poor air quality.

Barton's Energy and Commerce Committee is expected this month to begin debating the controversial energy bill, which has been stalled in Congress the past two years. The deadline extension proposal is included in a "discussion draft" that Barton's committee will use to craft a formal bill for the full House to consider.

The deadline extension option would provide breathing room for regional leaders struggling to lower Metroplex ozone -- among the worst in the nation.

But local health officials and environmental leaders argue that the proposal will delay efforts to clean the air, exposing Dallas-Fort Worth residents to dirty air for a longer period of time.

At high enough concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate the conditions of those suffering from emphysema, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.

"I think that it's just another move to delay compliance," said Tessie Holloway, regional executive director of the American Lung Association of Texas. "The important thing for us as health-care advocates is that asthma rates continue rising, the number of emergency room visits annually continues getting larger, and this [proposal] doesn't help."

This marks the fourth time Barton has proposed legislative action to allow extending the ozone-compliance deadlines, according to his office.

Larry Neal, Barton's spokesman, defended the proposal. In a written statement, he said Barton believes that it has bipartisan support and that the issue has not "prevented the bill from becoming law."

If approved, the proposal would re-establish an EPA policy adopted in 1998 allowing ozone-compliance deadlines to be extended in regions and cities that are unable to comply because of pollution that's generated "upwind" of the area.

Three federal court rulings have overturned the EPA policy of granting deadline extensions in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. The reason: it violates the Clean Air Act.

Those rulings killed a similar EPA decision to extend an old ozone compliance deadline in Dallas-Fort Worth.

If Congress allows them to, however, EPA officials in the regional office in Dallas have said they'll extend deadlines in North Texas if needed.

That possibility upsets Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.

He accuses Barton and the EPA of supporting the creation of a "giant loophole" that essentially renders federal health-based ozone standards meaningless.

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