Ice House Interview

What Would It Take for You to Care About Smog?

Our air quality problems may be less visible than in the past—but that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared.

By Catherine Matusow April 30, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Sitting at our usual table the other day at West Alabama Ice House, we couldn’t quite decide if it was a beautiful spring day or a beautiful spring day befouled by a toxic fog of hydrocarbons, ketones, and other particulate matter. In other words, the other patrons were smoking. So was the ice house a benign pleasure or a health hazard? We weren’t quite sure.

“I’m 64 years old, and I’ve never had a cigarette in my mouth,” said Larry Soward, shrugging and taking a swig of Miller Lite. “It’s a known carcinogen. Why would you do that?” 

As it happens, Soward advises people of the hazards lurking in the seemingly benign, which is another way of saying that he is an environmentalist. Specifically, he is the president of the board of Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving our city’s notoriously poor air quality. 

One wonders what Governor Rick Perry thinks of Soward—if, for instance, he doesn’t consider Soward himself a hazard lurking in the benign. It was Perry, after all, who named Soward to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2003, having been his boss at the Department of Agriculture in the ’90s. Over the course of his TCEQ tenure, Soward developed a reputation as a bit of a rogue, throwing his weight behind clean-air initiatives that his pro-business boss didn’t support. 

Soward, who got bored with Austin after several decades there and moved to Houston three years ago because, he says, it’s more exciting, is fond of terms like “smart growth” (as opposed to, say, idiotic stasis) and still professes shock that his views were ever considered anti-business. “The economy and the environment are not at odds with each other,” he said. “To me, the balance was a no-brainer, but I was fairly in the minority view on that.” Although Perry, perhaps not surprisingly, did not reappoint Soward to his post in 2009, when speaking of him Soward is ever politic, swearing that if Perry were to walk into the West Alabama Ice House backyard at that very moment, the two men would greet each other warmly. We glanced over through the nicotine haze, imagining such a scene, and moved on.

Soward’s diplomatic resources have never been tapped—or needed—more than now, when AAH is engaged in negotiations with both the government and oil companies, at a time when there are myriad imminent threats to air quality in Houston: the widening of the Panama Canal, which will bring larger container ships and more traffic through the Port of Houston; the city’s enthusiastic welcome of coal exporters turned away by West Coast ports, the looming Keystone Pipeline; and the expansion of our petrochemical plants—not to mention an exploding population that will double the number of cars by 2040. 

“If we don’t start thinking about those things and planning for them,” said Soward, “we’re going to have some major problems that are going to cost us money and time, and be hazardous to our environment and the public health.” 

That’s on top of air-quality issues the city already faces. The entire city. “People outside of the Ship Channel area don’t see a problem,” he said, perhaps because they haven’t visited or downloaded the app that checks ozone levels in one’s immediate vicinity. “It will actually show the ozone plume moving across the area. If you’re in West Houston, you may not think there’s a problem, but if you go on, you can see it.” 

To Soward, bringing real-time ozone measurements to the public is critical, as it is ordinary citizens, and not corporations, who have the most environmental impact. For one thing, the biggest wins against polluters happen when the public gets involved in the fight. Also, well, did we both really need to drive to the ice house? 

“We can have a strong economy and a healthy environment, or we can have a strong economy and a polluted environment,” Soward concluded. “It’s going to take, unfortunately, citizens to protect it”—that is, citizens aware of the hazards in the seemingly benign. Looking over at the smokers inhaling their known carcinogens, we wondered by what method their ignorance had been achieved. 

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