Environmental and community groups that welcomed a recent ruling that El Paso County is in violation of federal air quality standards are now fighting to ensure local pollution sources face stricter state regulations.

The severity of these environmental regulations hinges on whether the Environmental Protection Agency accepts the argument from state officials that Ciudad Juárez is a major contributor to El Paso’s high ozone levels.

“This is the biggest fight we’ve had yet because this is where really all the emission reductions are going to happen,” David Baake said.

The Las Cruces-based attorney brought the 2018 lawsuit that led the EPA to downgrade El Paso County’s air quality status from attainment to “marginal” nonattainment in December 2021. The EPA is weighing whether to raise that to a more severe designation of “moderate” nonattainment.

An area is in nonattainment when it has ozone levels that exceed federal pollution standards.

Ozone pollution, also called smog, is formed when emissions from vehicles, refineries, power plants and industrial boilers react with the sun’s heat. This is of particular concern to El Paso, which is seeing hotter days because of climate change, making smog pollution worse.

Excess ozone pollution is especially hazardous for children, the elderly and people with asthma.

In 2020, the American Lung Association ranked the El Paso-Las Cruces metropolitan area as the nation’s 13th worst for ozone pollution.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality argued in a December report that Juárez is the bigger contributor to air quality violations, not El Paso. The report said El Paso would be in compliance with federal standards “but for” emissions from Mexico — a key exception under the federal Clean Air Act to ensure that transboundary areas aren’t on the hook for international emissions.

David Baake

“No one disputes that Ciudad Juárez has a lot of pollution, like any big city,” Baake said. But Juárez’s population size and industrial development are “not changing at the rate to suggest it’s the cause for the region’s decline in air quality,” he said.

El Paso’s higher levels of ozone pollution are due to sustained population growth in West Texas and “a dramatic increase in emissions from oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin,” Baake wrote in a legal response to TCEQ’s report, filed by eight environmental and community groups on Jan. 21.

Higher temperatures and more frequent wildfires are also contributors, the response stated.

The groups, which include the Sierra Club and Familias Unidas del Chamizal, want the EPA to further classify El Paso as “moderate” ozone nonattainment. That would require Texas to take escalating action to curb ozone-producing emissions in the region.

Areas in “marginal” nonattainment are only required to regulate new sources of pollution and new permits for existing sources, like Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s large oil refinery in East-Central El Paso, which must renew its state air quality permit every 10 years.

A “moderate” classification would require TCEQ to more aggressively regulate existing pollution sources, such as vehicles, gasoline pumps, or emissions from refineries and power plants.

“There’s not a lot of new development in the area that’s going to be triggering the new source requirements, which is good. But, we do want to make sure we’re getting those existing sources under control because they contribute a lot to pollution,” Baake said of the need for stricter regulations.

The EPA has said it will reach a decision by the end of 2022. Whichever designation it settles on will be in effect until the EPA reexamines air quality standards.

Cover photo: Contamination in the air obscures views over the tri-state region on Dec. 14. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New...