AUSTIN, Texas - A slight haze hung low around Austin's skyline Thursday, a welcome sight for Lucia Zimmitti.
"Actually I’m coming from southern New Mexico where the air quality for many months of the year it’s pretty poor because of the High winds and it would kick up a lot of dust and sand and sometimes we couldn’t even go outside so for me this is a big improvement I think the air quality is far better just because I don’t have that blowing sand and dust," said Zimmitti.
That assessment doesn’t mean Austin's air quality is perfect. It continues to be a problem.
A report, called "Trouble in the Air," provides the latest review, an analysis of 2020 EPA pollution data from a group led by Environment Texas. The review for the Austin metro determined there were 22 days of elevated levels of ozone and 84 days of elevated levels of small particulate matter. That made for just over 100 days of bad air quality.
Traffic and construction were cited as main causes, but according to Luke Metzger with Environment Texas, there are other contributors.
"We're also seeing pollution blowing in from the wildfires in western United States. We had a problem with Saharan dust blowing in. So it is a kind of multiple sources of pollution," said Metzger.
Only Brownsville and El Paso had worse air quality than the Austin metro in 2020. While Austin's level was higher than San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, the report did note the air is getting better. Austin’s spikes in pollution, according to Metzger ,were also not as high as the other big cities.
"I think that if you look back from 2011, where Austin really had some of our worst air quality, we've improved in the last decade. So encouraged, but it shows that we still have a lot of work to do," said Metzger.
There's a reason for no big celebration. The 2020 count essentially comes with an asterisk as air quality appeared to improve in the Austin area after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, because streets were empty and many people stayed home.
Another reason is a major air monitor at Murchison Middle School was offline due to renovations. As a result, Metzger warns, data collected for the next three years is expected to skew lower. He is also worried the lower counts could give local officials a free pass from the Clean Air Act.
"And so that historically has put a lot of pressure on local elected officials who are often trying to bring new businesses to locate here to keep the pollution levels down so that they don't have, you know, cost of business. So if we don't have that, you know, threats that we're that we're facing, there's less urgency, there's less prioritization of steps to reduce pollution," said Metzger.
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