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Criticism on Houston Smog Plans

September 19, 2000

CONROE, Texas (AP) _ Trying to end Houston’s distinction as the nation’s smog capital, Texas is considering reducing speed limits and restricting the use of everything from heavy machinery to lawn mowers.

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission on Monday began a series of meetings aimed at adopting an eight-county plan to meet federal clean air standards and reduce ground-level ozone. It was a contentious start.

``You’re talking about shutting this county down,″ complained Mike Meador, a Montgomery County commissioner.

Houston replaced Los Angeles last year as the city reporting the most days in violation of federal smog standards. Los Angeles reclaimed the title earlier this year, then surrendered it earlier this month when Houston exceeded national smog standards for a 37th day.

Houston’s air quality has become campaign fodder used against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee.

The state has until the end of the year to submit an acceptable plan to the Environmental Protection Agency or risk losing highway funding and curtailed industrial development.

If the state’s plan doesn’t satisfy EPA officials, the federal agency intends to take over the air cleanup.

The state’s 19-point plan suggests the reduction of maximum highway speeds to 55 mph statewide, from 70 mph in places; the limitation of heavy equipment use by construction crews and lawn mowers by homeowners; and annual vehicle emissions testing, at $22.50 per vehicle.

The proposal drew widespread complaints Monday.

``Criticism alone will not change the rules,″ Commissioner Ralph Marquez told the crowd of 150 people. ``What we really are looking for are some new ideas to clean up the air. We’re interested in doing it more efficiently and less painfully.″

However, most of the public comments were negative.

``I feel the EPA standards are unreasonable and unrealistic,″ said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. ``We’re not asking Washington to row the boat for us, but don’t be an anchor on us.″

Some complained that Harris County, where Houston is located with its concentration of petrochemical plants, was responsible for the area’s pollution problems. Marquez pointed out, however, that the seven surrounding counties account for half of the area’s ozone emissions.

Mike Payne, a landscaper representing the 2,300-member Texas Nursery and Landscapers Association, asked how lawn mower limits could be enforced. Another landscaper, Peter Wakefield, questioned the wisdom of halting work from 6 a.m. to noon from April through October and resuming in the afternoons, when it’s hotter.

``I can’t think of anything worse for the health of people,″ he said.

Another of the plan’s provisions would require a catalytic coating on new air conditioners installed east of Interstate 35, the main north-south freeway that bisects the state. Critics said the coating would raise residential air conditioner prices by $1,000.

``It is not fair, not right,″ said Stephanie Marquard, owner of a Houston air conditioning and heating company. ``It is overkill.″

Marquez said he was not distressed by all the criticism.

``We realize that it’s part of the process _ people expressing frustration,″ he said.

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