HOUSTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency suggested Thursday that it will approve parts of Texas' clean-air plan, a move that could help ease some of the strain between the state and the federal agency.
The EPA said in a statement that it supports revisions submitted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality giving operating flexibility to some of the biggest air polluters, including the state's many refineries.
The EPA indicated that it will approve the plan after a 30-day public comment period.
The EPA and Texas have been locked for years in a bitter public battle that peaked when the federal agency overturned the state's flexible permit program. It forced more than 100 industries, including some of the nation's largest refineries, to work directly with the EPA to get new operating papers.
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Thursday's announcement is a sign that Texas and the EPA quietly collaborated, even while Gov. Rick Perry blasted the EPA on the campaign trail as he sought the GOP presidential nomination.
"They have their disagreements with us still on policy levels, and we're still working with them on those in various forms," said Carl Edlund, EPA's director of the air, waste and toxics division in Region 6, which oversees Texas. "This is not a panacea, but it's an improvement and it shows that we can work together."
In a statement, the state environmental agency said it is pleased with the EPA's announcement, saying it "clears the way for companies to have regulatory flexibility and certainty."
The proposed program would require industries to separately monitor emissions from different units under a general cap or umbrella, Edlund said.
This means, for example, that if one pollutant is higher than permissible and another is lower, but combined they're below the pollution "umbrella," the plant could still legally operate.
The state had gone to court over the EPA's decision to overturn the flexible permit program, which also allowed plants to operate under an emissions "umbrella" but did not separately detail pollution from different sources.
It remains unclear whether Texas will drop that lawsuit.
The EPA also announced Thursday that the Houston area has again failed to meet federal air pollution standards by missing a November 2007 deadline to comply with a one-hour ozone standard.
Houston, Galveston and Brazoria counties -- a region lined by some of the nation's largest refineries and chemical plants -- missed the mark by only 1 part per billion, a tiny margin away from the goal of 124 ppb of ozone emissions over one hour, Edlund said.
The EPA had initially hoped to abandon the one-hour ozone standard and focus exclusively on the newer and better eight-hour regulation.
But in July, a federal court ruled that the agency could not do that, so the EPA had to go back and tell the cities whether they had met that one-hour goal.
The EPA said Thursday that three years of air testing and months of analysis found that Houston had failed.
The federal agency told The Associated Press exclusively about its findings, explaining that the nation's fourth-largest city also doesn't meet an eight-hour emissions standard of 75 ppb. As a result, it will have to draw up a new pollution reduction plan focusing on the eight-hour standard, Edlund said.
"It isn't like a dismal failure," he said. He noted that in the late 1990s, Houston was emitting more than 200 ppb of ozone over one hour.
The federal agency penalizes cities that fail to meet its ozone and greenhouse gas standards. Houston is among more than 40 communities nationwide, including Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles, that consistently fall short.
Penalties require cities to draw up pollution reduction plans, conduct more stringent vehicle inspections and install fume-controlling fuel pumps at gas stations, Edlund said.
Houston, however, came so close to meeting the one-hour standard that it won't be penalized this time.
In the meantime, it will focus efforts on the eight-hour standard, which the area falls short of by about 11 ppb, he said.
City officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
The city has a dedicated "green" program and has taken measures to clean its air. One such measure is becoming one of 15 cities in the country to offer a bike-sharing program to cut down on vehicle traffic.