Breathing Easier: Air quality in East Texas is vastly improved, through public-private partnerships and cooperation

 

As the plant manager at Trane, Ted Crabtree spends a lot of time thinking about what the plant isn’t producing - waste, in the form of emissions and materials. Last week, Trane’s parent company, Ingersoll Rand, announced the Tyler factory has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 17,000 metric tons since 2013.

Trane’s efforts have been a big part of why East Texas air quality has improved significantly in recent years, even as population has boomed. That’s been accomplished through a uniquely East Texas approach - with public-private partnerships and voluntary agreements, rather than mandates handed down from either Austin or Washington.

There are other factors - more efficient cars, for example, and a decline in the manufacturing sector in recent years. But the improvement in air quality has been dramatic.

The 17,000 metric tons of emissions Trane has eliminated is the equivalent of what passenger cars emit over 40.4 million miles driven.

“Over the last three years, we announced our commitment to reducing our environmental footprint,” said Crabtree. “We have ‘green teams’ who look for ways to do that. And it’s not just emissions; everything we do has an environmental impact, even just switching on the lights for a 1 million square foot facility. It’s a big focus for us.”

And it’s not government-driven, he added.

“It’s everyone taking part, from our corporate leadership to our local teams,” he said. “You can ride along and just watch the government guidelines, but we’re pushing ourselves to be better.”

LOCALLY DRIVEN

Two decades ago, the city of Tyler and other municipalities were facing stiff penalties because of high ozone levels. The EPA declared five East Texas counties - Gregg, Harrison, Rusk, Smith and Upshur - a non-attainment area and readied sanctions. Those sanctions could have severely limited the area’s potential for growth and development.

So, local officials met with industry leaders to see if there was a way to improve air quality without costly government mandates. They formed the Northeast Texas Air Care Association (NETAC), and started talking.

Greg Morgan, the city of Tyler’s managing director of utilities and public works, is the city’s voice on that board.

“The amazing thing about the improvements you’re seeing in East Texas is that it has been accomplished through voluntary cooperation between business and government,” he said. “We have not had any enforcement coming down or mandatory changes we’ve had to make locally. We’ve done it all voluntarily.”

In 1996, local leaders decided they wouldn’t wait for those mandates.

“We have a better feel for what can be done and how to address problems than someone in Washington does,” Morgan said. “Washington tends to believe one size fits all. What’s good for Dallas is what’s good for Tyler - and that’s just not true.”

East Texas’ approach has worked because of a spirit of cooperation, he said.

“Everybody is at the table, looking at ways to address the issue of air quality,” Morgan said. “And we have been able to do that through modifying the way we do things. Industry has been willing to participate and that has been a big factor. I think it’s really the East Texas mindset of solving our own problems. We’re willing to do what needs to be done, but we want to be the ones making the decisions.”

Here’s an example.

In 1996, the Eastman Chemical Co. still operated two coal-fired furnaces in Longview. Much of the company’s emissions weren’t subject to EPA and state regulations because they were grandfathered in - the processes predated the Texas Clean Air Act.

But they still contributed to the area’s ozone problems. So NETAC sat down with Eastman officials and worked out an agreement to cut back - even on the grandfathered emissions. The agreement was announced in February of 2000.

Texas Eastman spokesman Mike Childress said at the time that the company had been working with NETAC for several years on a plan to reduce both nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions. Both are building blocks of ground-level ozone, a principal contaminant found in urban smog.

“Our people live here. They work here. We’re concerned about air quality,” Childress said. “This will help in ozone precursor emissions reductions. It’s going to have a far-reaching effect.”

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesman Tom Kelley called Eastman’s agreement “surprising” and “significant.”

“This is done far in advance of any time that they would need to do that,” he said.

TOUGHER STANDARDS

Attorney Jim Mathews has represented NETAC from the beginning. He says that over the years, the EPA has tightened its rules, and each time, the cooperative effort in East Texas has met those new, tougher standards.

“Air quality in East Texas has improved steadily since 1997,” he explained. “The five-county area has come into compliance with three different standards - each more stringent than the last one, and a fourth was announced last year. And according to the data, we will be in compliance with that, as well.”

Ozone is measured at three sites in East Texas - the Tyler airport, in Longview and in Karnack, a community in Harrison County.

“In 1995, there was a period of about three weeks when there were four exceedences at Longview monitor, Mathews explained. “And that’s when the NETAC organization was formed. The emphasis has been on voluntary emissions reductions measures throughout the region. And I think the best judge of how it’s worked is the fact we’ve come into compliance with all the new, stricter measures.”

There’s another way to judge that, says Tyler’s Greg Morgan.

“It’s just easier to breathe,” he said. “The air quality has improved noticeably. That’s important for people who might have respiratory problems. There’s a real improvement in the quality of life in East Texas.”

MAKING GAINS

Trane’s Tyler plant is Ingersoll Rand’s largest manufacturing site. It produces about 800,000 residential HVAC systems - air conditioners and heat pumps. On that scale, even small changes can have a big impact.

Trane’s Ted Crabtree points to the truckloads of wooden pallets that are shipped out each week.

“We wanted to reduce the tonnage we send to the city’s landfill,” he explained. “So we started looking for companies that would be willing to take our scrap wood. Some of it is recycled, some of it’s used in a biomass electrical generation plant near Nacogdoches. By doing so, we have avoid putting somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 to 34 tons of wood waste into the landfill each month.”

Crabtree added that one of his green teams - ordinary workers tasked with finding ways to reduce the company’s environmental footprint - led the effort.

“Everyone is committed to this,” he said. “And we all benefit from it.”

Twitter: @tmt_roy

 

Recommended For You