Just Air

Guadalupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. Photo © Mike Norton/iStockphoto.

Sponsored Post – from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)

This post was written by Amanda Masino, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Biology at Huston-Tillotson University and Faculty Co-Advisor, Green is the New Black. Huston-Tillotson University and National Parks Conservation Association are partners in educating, engaging, and empowering next generation stewards for protecting and preserving our public lands.

Location, location, location. This phrase isn’t just useful advice for realtors. Location is one of the most critical determinants of health and lifespan. Where you live and work impacts your diet, exercise options, access to doctors, and social connections. Location also dictates your exposure to pollution. The air you breathe and the water you drink determine your health at the most fundamental level.

Location, then, reflects the health and environmental disparities perpetuated in poor communities and communities of color. The importance of place has been central to the modern environmental justice (EJ) movement since its inception decades ago (and by indigenous communities long before that). Current crises in Flint, Michigan and southeast coastal Texas post-hurricane Harvey show that environmental threats to EJ communities loom larger than ever.

Here in Texas, pollution from dirty coal-fired power plants – which are often sited near less advantaged communities – remains a major threat to public health and our environment. We lag behind the rest of the country in emission controls at coal-fired power plants; four of the worst five emitting power plants in the country are in Texas. Each of those five plants emit more sulfur dioxide (SO2) than the combined emissions of 32 other states. SO2 is a particularly damaging pollutant. It causes respiratory damage on its own, plus it combines with other atmospheric components to produce particulates, haze, and acid rain, each of which manifest damage on the body and the environment.

Of course, SO2 is only one of the environmental insults linked to coal-fired plants. It’s important to remember that if SO2 is being emitted, so are other pollutants. And even when SO2 emissions are controlled at power plants, they are releasing greenhouse gas climate pollutants, which exert their own devastating effects on the planet.

Air pollution from coal-fired plants also impacts supposedly protected locations – our national parks and wilderness areas. You might expect that these wide swaths of undeveloped land that were set aside to preserve their wild nature would have the cleanest air around, but that is hardly the case, especially here in Texas. That is why I and other members of Huston-Tillotson University’s environmental group Green is the New Black are working with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in advocating for clean air in the national parks. We join NPCA in expressing grave concern over the Environmental Protection Agency’s about-face on the Regional Haze Rule. EPA abandoned its proposal to significantly limit pollution from 15 Texas coal plants, instead finalizing a version of the rule that will leave vulnerable populations and iconic public lands in harm’s way for the foreseeable future.

The original formulation of the Regional Haze Rule required pollution reduction from several sources, including 15 coal-fired power plants in Texas, which would have helped to protect communities and public lands. The rule is part of the 40-year-old Clean Air Act mandate to restore clear skies to our iconic national parks and protected wilderness. EPA’s final, weakened, version of the rule completely misses the mark. EPA is taking a business-as-usual approach, essentially approving air pollution-driven degradation of natural lands and communities that is antithetical to environmental justice aims.

Remember, location impacts health, so much so that in cities such as New Orleans, a 3-mile difference in location correlates to a 25-year difference in lifespan. We all share the same air, but pollution lingers near its source, with greater concentration in lower income, black, and/or Hispanic communities (which tend to be closer to roads and industrial areas). These effects can be hyperlocal – air quality at the block level has more health impact than overall city air quality. This is why students in HT’s STEM Research Scholars Program are developing indoor and outdoor air quality monitoring plans for our east Austin campus to help understand pollutant levels and communicate them to the public.

The connections between air and disease could not be more pressing, with asthma, cardiovascular disease, and even cognitive disease directly linked to pollutants such as particulates (PM2.5) and ozone. If the pollution reductions proposed in the 2017 haze plan had been adopted and enforced, we would have saved at least 1,600 lives, eliminated 31,000 asthma attacks, prevented 2,200 heart attacks, and reduced thousands of emergency room visits and hospital admissions for air-pollution related illnesses. In effect, EPA has decided that these lives don’t matter.

We must all continue to advocate for clean air and do whatever we can to unite the public on this issue. National parks and other wilderness areas can serve as sites to galvanize public engagement in pollution prevention and unite sectors of the environmental movement whose interests have not always aligned. Physical visibility challenges in parks make the issue of air pollution tangible; health impacts of pollution in EJ communities make the issue inescapably urgent. Location matters for us all.


Please note – editorials and sponsored posts are written by guest writers to inform and educate the community on a variety of different viewpoints, as well as to share information about local eco-friendly businesses and organizations. However, they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Austin EcoNetwork. 

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