Brewster county Big Bend

Big Bend: Air Pollution Threatens
Texas' Majestic Landscape

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Big Bend This week the Texas Toxic Tour takes you west, to the beautiful mountains and spectacular views of one of Texas' most prized parks - Big Bend National Park. This treasured park is in danger, and this is its story.

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Threatened Park Treasure

The Big Bend region of Southwest Texas attracts thousands of tourists and nature-lovers each year to enjoy its celebrated views and rugged landscape. Much of the region is encompassed by the 801,000-acre Big Bend National Park, which merges natural environments from desert to mountains and provides habitat for a great diversity of plants and animals.(1) Unfortunately, air pollution from both Texas and Mexico is destroying this majestic landscape that Texans and tourists now cherish.

Before changes in air quality first appeared near Big Bend during the 1970s, visitors to the region enjoyed a breathtaking view of the landscape and could see objects as far as 180 miles away. Today, clear views are a rarity rather than the norm. Pollution has created a haze that impairs visibility on most days, and 6% of the time visibility is less than 30 miles.(2) According to TNRCC, "the decrease in visibility at Big Bend National Park is among the most pronounced of any national park in the western United States."(3) Meanwhile, the National Park Service (NPS) considers Big Bend to have the "dirtiest air" among all western parks.(4)

Audio & Video

Listen to the Big Bend pollution story

Featured in our interview is Texas resident, Fran Sage.

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Coal-burning Plants and Grandfathered Facilities Are Major Polluters

Fran Sage, who lives in Alpine, about 70 miles north of Big Bend National Park, explains that, "There was a decision by EPA and the National Park Service to do a ...study. It took a LONG time to come out; gathering the data may be scientific but interpreting it is political. One of the surprising things was that Texas is polluting the Big Bend. We don't have heavy industry or much traffic out here, so it was a stunner." The study showed that urban and industrial areas of Houston and Galveston on the Texas Gulf coast are a large source of air contaminants, as is a similar region in North Central Mexico.(5)

Two enormous coal-burning power plants (Carbon I and II) near Piedras Negras in the Mexican border state of Coahuila are known to be regular contributers to pollution in the region. These power plants burn low-grade coal in facilities that are not equipped with pollution control devices such as air scrubbers.(6) Sulfur emissions from the plants help form the white haze that obscures visibility in Big Bend. Operation of these two plants is expected to add an estimated 250,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere annually.(7)

Coal-fired plants in north central Texas and on the Gulf Coast are also a problem. A 1971 clause to the Clean Air Act exempted older plants from having to comply with certain pollution control regulations, thereby allowing many of these "grandfathered" plants in Texas to continue operating without pollution control devices.(8) Furthermore, Texas has done little at the state level to impose stricter standards on these facilities. Legislation in 1999 offered incentives to grandfathered facilities to voluntarily clean up their emissions, but it did not require them to do so.(9) So these operations continue to pump out pollution, much of which are sulfur emissions which account for nearly 40 percent of the pollutants reducing visibility in Big Bend. Other particulate pollution contributing to the haze includes: organic carbon (19 %) from wildfires, agricultural burning, and vehicles; coarse material or blowing soil (16%); and nitrate from nitrous oxides produced by industry and vehicles (4%).(10)

Big Bend on a good day    Big Bend on a bad day

Big Bend on a good day and on a bad day

"It's always seemed to us that Texas should clean up it's own act," says Fran Sage. "How can you insist that Mexico put scrubbers on [it's coal-fired power plants] and turn out to have pollution from grandfathered, non-scrubbered, plants in Texas?"

West Texas residents are starting to express serious concerns about air quality in the region.(11) Approximately 100 area residents turned out for a recent air quality meeting sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Big Bend region. Another group of approximately 100 concerned citizens attended a similar meeting in Alpine, Texas the year before to discuss the problem of migrating air pollution and decreased visibility.(12) The pollution has residents worried that regularly breathing these contaminants may pose health risks, especially to sensitive individuals. Health risks could include eye, nose, and throat irritation, asthma, and bronchitis.(13)

"Doctors advised people who were chemically sensitive and had breathing problems to move out here because the air was so clean. The problem is, it's not so clean any more," says Fran Sage. "It may be an irritant and, for you and me, a long-term health issue, but for them it's existence. They cannot breath that air."

Studies Shed Light on Problem But Environmental Agencies Move Slowly to Correct It

In 1990, the US and Mexico formed a Binational Air Work Group to begin discussing air quality issues along the border. In 1993, the EPA and Mexico's environmental agency formed a Binational Big Bend Air Work Group. As a result of the meetings of the work group, the two countries agreed to conduct a preliminary study of pollution in the Big Bend region, to be followed by a comprehensive study.(14) The preliminary study was conducted in September-October 1996 by the EPA (Region 6), NPS, and two Mexican agencies. Results of the study were slow in coming, however. The US and Mexico differed in their interpretations of the data and months of negotiation were required to reach a conclusion.(5) The final report was not issued until January 1999(16) and still did not fully determine the specific sources of major polluters.(17)

Both countries originally agreed to move forward with the second, comprehensive phase of the study, known as the Big Bend Regional Aerosol and Visibility Observational (BRAVO) study. However, disagreements over the design of the study eventually led to Mexico's complete withdrawal from the project.(18) On the US side, the EPA and NPS decided to go ahead and complete the study.

From July through October 1999, EPA and NPS attempted to track specific sources of pollution by releasing chemical "tracers"-trackable compounds not normally found in the atmosphere-through the smokestacks of facilities that are potential pollution sources.(19) Because Mexico opted out of participating in the study, tracers could not be placed in potential Mexican sources, such as Carbon I and II. However, tracers were injected into emissions from those plants as they drifted across the border at Eagle Pass, Texas. A total of 40 monitoring stations were used, most in Texas, and tracers were used at facilities such as the Big Brown unit of Texas Utilities (near Dallas and one of the largest grandfathered plants in Texas), the Parrish plant in Houston, and in the San Antonio area.(20)

While the study results may finally provide some clear cut indications of major pollutant sources to the region, Big Bend residents will have to wait some time before anything is done. Agency researchers do not expect to release the final BRAVO report for at least another year, in late 2001.(21) And TNRCC has indicated that it will not move forward with evaluating possible pollution control measures until the BRAVO study is complete.(22)

"I truly wish the agency which is meant to protect the health of the citizens and the environment would see their role that way. We should come first, not the industries," says Fran.

Until then, daily visitors to Big Bend will continue to find its scenic vistas obscured under the white haze of pollution.

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.

Links of interest:

Sources:

  1. TNRCC, "Blurry Big Bend,", March 12, 1999.
  2. National Park Service, US Dept. of Interior, "Big Bend" brochure, June 1996.
  3. TNRCC, "Blurry Big Bend,", March 12, 1999.
  4. Ibid.
  5. National Park Service, US Dept. of Interior, "Big Bend" brochure, June 1996.
  6. TNRCC, "Blurry Big Bend,", March 12, 1999; Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas" Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  7. National Park Service, US Dept. of Interior, "Big Bend" brochure, June 1996.
  8. Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas" Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  9. Ibid.
  10. TNRCC, "Blurry Big Bend,", March 12, 1999; Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas" Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  11. Francis K. Sage, "Air Quality Meeting Sponsored by EPA," Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Newsletter, Issue 44, May 3, 2000.
  12. TNRCC, "Blurry Big Bend,", March 12, 1999.
  13. Carlos Rincon and Peter Emerson, "Binationally Managing Air Quality in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: A Case Study," Borderlines (63), Vol. 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  14. Francis K. Sage, "Air Quality Meeting Sponsored by EPA," Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Newsletter, Issue 44, May 3, 2000.
  15. Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas" Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  16. Francis K. Sage, "Air Quality Meeting Sponsored by EPA," Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Newsletter, Issue 44, May 3, 2000.
  17. Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas" Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  18. Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas", Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  19. TNRCC, "Blurry Big Bend," March 12, 1999.
  20. Frances K Sage, "Ongoing Air Pollution Issues in Big Bend, Texas," Borderlines (63), Volume 8, No. 1, January 2000.
  21. Francis K. Sage, "Air Quality Meeting Sponsored by EPA," Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Newsletter, Issue 44, May 3, 2000.
  22. Ibid.
 
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