Reporting San Antonio

San Antonio’s ‘Motor City’ Ambition Spells Trouble for Future Air Quality

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Under a haze: Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas, Inc. Image: Toyota

Toyota Manufacturing came to San Antonio, in part, to save on the cost of pollution control technologies. Their heavy emissions helped push Bexar County out of attainment with federal air standards.

Now with the EPA listing Bexar County in ‘moderate nonattainment’—expected to bring tens of billions in costs—is it time to stop chasing auto manufacturing jobs?

Greg Harman

This week, the US Environmental Protection Agency finally lowered the hammer on Bexar County for its bad air, declaring in the Federal Register that the county is being elevated to “moderate” from “marginal” nonattainment for high ozone levels. There will be a public hearing and, if past air failures offer any indication, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits to try to stave off what now appears inevitable: increased costs on local industry are on on the way—as is a mandatory automobile emissions inspections regime we’ll all pay for.

For years, San Antonio officials and economic boosters bragged on the city as one of the last large US cities still in compliance with federal Clean Air Act requirements. The boasting helped recruit new businesses to town—major employers like Toyota Manufacturing, for instance—that would have been constrained by air-pollution controls in other areas. But the bragging ended in 2015 when the US Environmental Protection Agency set new standards for ozone more in line with public-health needs, placing Bexar County, already suffering regular asthma-inducing spikes of unhealthy air, out of compliance.

Bexar County was designated as being in “marginal nonattainment” with federal standards in 2018 and given three years to shape up. Local leaders responded by pledging more money for programs meant to constrain some city emissions while talking about possibly suing the US Environmental Protection Agency to stop a painful reclassification.

While most of the pollution responsible for local conditions comes from outside the area, local industry and fossil-fuel driven cars and trucks collectively have a significant impact. Some polluters, a Deceleration review of state emissions data show, contribute far more than others. And most pollution levels didn’t go down after San Antonio started scrambling in 2015 to keep from falling into noncompliance.

Ground-level ozone is created when pollution from gas-powered cars and trucks, power plants, refineries, and other sources react in the presence of sunlight. That pollution can come from nitrogen oxides (NOX), such as from the CPS Energy’s coal-powered JK Spruce coal plant, or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Nearly half of all industrially-generated NOX in Bexar County comes from San Antonio’s last remaining coal plant. Meanwhile, the leading source of industrially released VOCs has gotten far less attention: Toyota Manufacturing. 

While CPS Energy’s Board of Trustees have begun planning to potentially close the JK Spruce coal plant by 2030, a growing rush of automotive manufacturing activity on the South Side could—without federal intervention—reduce the air-quality gains won from finally getting the city off of coal power.

Tons per year

Toyota produces massive amounts of VOCs, primarily via its paint shop, but also from glues, plastics, and foams, the offgassing of which is responsible for that oft-celebrated “new car smell.” In 2019, Toyota Manufacturing released roughly 30 percent of all VOCs in Bexar County from industrial operations required to report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. When factoring in the ancillary Toyoda Gosei Texas, which produces vehicle components at the same plant, the two companies were responsible for roughly 38.5 percent of all industrial VOCs in the county.

The continued courting of the auto manufacturing sector by local leaders may mean more of the same is on the way.

Last year, Mayor Ron Nirenberg welcomed the rise of Navistar International Corp’s truck manufacturing facility as pointing to an “unlimited ceiling” for manufacturing-heavy job growth on the city’s South Side. Getting them here took $14.4 million in assistance from San Antonio and Bexar County, according to the San Antonio Report.

This week, San Antonio City Council will vote on an incentives package of up to $562,500 for DeLorean Motor Company, naming it a qualified business under the Texas Enterprise Zone Program, a state sales and use tax refund program promising additional benefits.

[UPDATE: Council voted unanimously for the measure with no discussion of accelerating local air-quality challenges.]

“The sources of VOC [in the auto sector] will come from paint, any kind of paint, [and] any preservatives or solvents they may be using. Any aerosols they may be using. Any glues,” said Ramon Sanchez, a researcher within Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “For example, foam that is in the seats, even the fabrics, may leave volatile organic compounds.”

Toyota Manufacturing chose to locate in San Antonio, in part, because Bexar County was at that time in attainment with federal air-quality standards. Once established, however, the plant’s Tundras, Tacomas, and (now) Sequoias came to jeopardize that compliance. For years the plant has released orders-of-magnitude more smog-creating VOCs than any other industrial facility in Bexar County. In 2019, Toyota Manufacturing released 453 tons of VOCs and Toyoda Gosei contributed another 78 tons for a combined 531 tons. Other large industrial VOC polluters followed distantly—San Antonio Refinery on S. Presa with roughly 100 tons of VOCs; CPS Energy’s Calaveras Generation Station (JK Spruce and the OW Sommers gas plant) with about 85 tons; and NuStar’s two major gas hubs with a reported 67 tons of VOCs.

Ozone season in San Antonio. Source: Texas’s State Implementation Plan for 2015 Ozone Standards.

High ozone events are linked to childhood asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. In 2017, the City of San Antonio released a report stating that between 17 and 32 deaths (valued together at $220M in 2014 dollars) in San Antonio could be avoided by improving local air quality. However, as worked out by the Alamo Area Council of Governments, the economic threat of a moderate nonattainment EPA classification came with a much higher price tag—potentially tens of billions of dollars. Needless to say, when EPA found Bexar County in “marginal nonattainment” for the first time, local leaders urged a reconsideration. In a letter to then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Mayor Ron Nirenberg credited local initiatives with helping drive ozone levels of 91 parts per billion (ppb) ozone in 2004 to 73 ppb in 2016. He pledged that local pollution levels would be back into compliance by 2020. (Spoiler: They weren’t.)

Also writing Pruitt, Richard Perez of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce decried a nonattainment listing as “unjust and egregious” considering that “fully 38%” of local air pollutants “are from foreign sources!”

“It would be a sad state of affairs if in 2018—the 300th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio—our city were saddled with a burdensome and unwarranted regulatory intervention that could set San Antonio back decades,” he wrote with other chamber reps.

Bexar County has since been given several years to improve air quality to avoid being formally reclassified as “moderate nonattainment.” Yet the three-year averages today remain three parts per billion of ozone above the federal standard of 70ppb. And US EPA officials announced this week that, indeed, Bexar is being reclassified, bringing significant new requirements for industry and motorists.

Assembly at Toyota Manufacturing. Image: Toyota Manufacturing

While the City of San Antonio worked to drive its emissions down to avoid this fate, including closing its dirtiest coal plant in 2018, which dramatically drove down its emissions, as well as a 2016 anti-idling ordinance, the same can’t be said for Toyota and other industrial plant operators in town.

Toyota emissions only dipped in 2020 after operations shutdown during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A review of pollution data by Deceleration shows emissions at the Toyota plant actually increased significantly for several years after the rollout of EPA’s new ozone criteria in 2015.

Now as San Antonio’s City Council sweetens the pot for more auto manufacturing, one thing appears clear: Toyota maximized its profits by locating to San Antonio where it wasn’t required to invest in the most protective pollution controls while dumping large amounts of VOCs that contributed to Bexar County’s current nonattainment status.

“Toyota came to San Antonio over 20 years ago to avoid installing VOC controls that were required in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” said Neil Carman, the clean air director for the state Sierra Club. “And those VOCs have impacted San Antonio, including the higher ozone levels being observed. Now Toyota will be faced with having to install and maintain gas burners on its truck paint booths.”

Likely, he added, they will also need to install controls to reduce VOCs by 90 percent or higher—“plus mandatory VOC emissions stack performance testing to prove they comply with the new permit special conditions.”

Of course, the rest of us will be paying for the failure too. Most likely through mandatory emissions testing for personal vehicles, something Bexar County has heretofore avoided.

Assembly at Toyota Manufacturing. Image: Toyota Manufacturing

“The problem right now is that transportation is generating most of the nitrogen oxides,” said Harvard’s Sanchez. “It’s very difficult to get rid of that one unless you have electric vehicles.”

That reality of heavy transportation-based emissions of NOX should have inspired aggressive local action on the VOC side of the ozone equation and agreements with leading polluters like Toyota. “Since you cannot control nitrogen oxides [in transportation], the key here will be controlling volatile organic compounds,” Sanchez said. “And that’s something that the company could do.”

Some researchers, including those drafting the state’s ozone response, have suggested that VOCs should be a secondary concern after NOX reductions. But Sanchez said the San Diego-Tijuana area—now with some of the nation’s worst air, in part due to regular climate-driven California forest fires—saw rapid progress through the creation of a special task force on VOCs.

“We found ways to actually reduce VOCs by more than 50 percent by doing things like using electrostatic spray guns [in painting],” Sanchez said. “What we created were some enclosed places that have an exhaust treatment system for those. It’s very straightforward and not very demanding.”

In this Sanchez finds support in a recent local study produced for the City’s Metro Health, where consultant Harvey Jeffries wrote that a lot of VOCs are not reported and vented invisibly. “The application of the IR camera that can `see’ invisible VOC plumes,” Jeffries wrote, “was a major turning point in the Houston 2004 SIP formulation and led to more than a decade of decreasing [ozone].”

San Antonio’s 32-page Ozone Attainment Master Plan mentions CPS Energy twice, but nowhere names any major industrial polluters like Toyota. It also describes the formation of a Business Stakeholder Ozone Attainment meeting group. Sanchez said the key to beating San Antonio’s air quality woes may be found in a special task force specifically dedicated to VOCs.

This week’s EPA announcement was expected in March. But that deadline came and went with no news. In an April Fool’s Day notice, a coalition of organizations sought to force EPA’s hand with notice of intent to sue. Adelita Cantu, a public health expert at the UT Health Science Center-San Antonio and steering committee member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, said that given that air quality is “a determinant of good health and well being, we all must work together to ensure that the air we all share and breathe is free of contaminants that can reduce our collective quality of life.”

The group’s 60-day notice of intent to sue is signed by representatives of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Downwinders at Risk, HEAL Utah, Public Citizen, and the Sierra Club.

Deceleration has numerous questions pending with the EPA and the City of San Antonio and will update this story as new information becomes available.

Toyota did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about their VOC pollution and past pollution-control efforts. But among many environmental boasts in the company’s recent report on North American operations, VOCs saw little improvement between 2020 and 2021—and much of the 4-percent decline was likely due to lower production during the onset of COVID-19, the report states.

[UPDATE: Deceleration got a response after our deadline from Kyle Cunningham, a program manager at San Antonio’s Metro Health, who offered that: “Metro Health has been engaged with Toyota. They are good partners and actively participate.”]

Media reps from Navistar and DeLorean Motor Company also failed to respond to multiple emailed requests for information about their commitment to pollution control.

Meanwhile, a representative of the US EPA said that the agency would review all comments received during the current 60-day comment period before making a final judgement. After a moderate classification, the feds would expect Bexar County o come back into compliance “no later than September 24, 2024.”


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