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Tempers flare over smog plan
LAKE JACKSON, Texas (The Houston Chronicle) -- Hours after a rash of high smog readings at 10 sites across the Houston area, an often angry and raucous throng of nearly 800 told state officials to leave Brazoria County out of a pollution-reduction plan for the eight-county metropolitan region.
"Brazoria County wants clean air as much as anyone," County Judge John Willy said Monday night at a hearing on the smog plan by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. But he declared to loud cheers and applause that the proposal is "not acceptable to this county."
Echoing the sentiments of other speakers, Willy said Brazoria County's pollution doesn't add much to the Houston area's smog problem and his county should have to face only regulations fitting for its small contribution.
But others at the hearing were opposed to any inclusion in the smog plan, which aims to reduce the region's levels of ground-level ozone, smog's main ingredient, below the national health standard by a federal deadline in 2007.
Yvonne Dewey, a Lake Jackson resident, said she and others who helped organize opposition to the plan before the hearing -- handing out protest stickers that many wore -- don't think it should apply in Brazoria County in any form.
The proposed regulations will bring hardships but make "no positive difference," she said.
As now proposed by the TNRCC, the smog plan would apply equally in Harris, Brazoria and six other counties. It includes huge cuts in industrial pollution, a 55-mph speed limit, tougher tailpipe testing, morning bans on construction and lawn equipment, clean-fuel mandates and other pollution-cutting measures.
Starting with a question-and-answer session before the formal hearing began, TNRCC officials got an overwhelmingly negative earful from Brazoria County residents, some of whom punctuated the proceedings with jeers, catcalls and derisive laughter.
TNRCC Commissioner Ralph Marquez, an appointee of Gov. George W. Bush who previously worked for a chemical company in Brazoria County, explained that state officials cannot change the county's congressionally approved inclusion in the region's smog violation zone.
Likewise, Marquez said the TNRCC cannot change the national health standard for ozone.
A near-capacity crowd occupied a large room at the Lake Jackson Civic Center with enough chairs for about 800 people.
Many wore T-shirts alleging that Vice President Al Gore and the Clinton-Gore administration officials who head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are responsible for "blackmail" to force state officials to adopt the smog plan.
In an interview, Marquez said he does not view the situation that way, because Congress passed the Clean Air Act ordering the Houston area's compliance with the ozone standard in 1990. He said there is "no doubt" that reducing ozone levels will be "good for Texans' health."
Bush has told the three commissioners he appointed to the TNRCC that he wants them to "clean up Texas" with smog plans for Houston and other cities, Marquez said.
The governor, he said, "knows we have to comply with a federal law." He did not add that the act in question was signed into law by Bush's father, former President Bush.
Similar concerns about inclusion in the smog plan -- or at least in all of it -- were expressed earlier Monday at a smaller, much less vociferous hearing in Conroe.
At that hearing, some of the most fervent criticism was leveled at proposed rules that would affect lawn and construction equipment.
Those rules would ban the use of gasoline-powered lawn equipment and heavy diesel construction equipment before noon to shift the pollution they produce out of peak sunlight hours -- the time most conducive to ozone formation.
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