Welcome To Smog City

Texas' largest city has achieved national supremacy, but not for something anyone is likely to brag about – the sprawling industrial mecca now is considered the nation's smoggiest city.

Houston had been running neck-and-neck with Los Angeles in the air pollution stakes until Oct. 7, when it surpassed L.A. by notching its 44th smog day this year.

A smog day is when the ozone level rises above a mark set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

L.A. has had smoggy air for decades and has long been the butt of jokes about it. But as of Wednesday, the Houston count of smog days had reached 46. Los Angeles was still at 43.

Skyline of Los Angeles -- no longer the smog capital of America.

Experts are trying to determine which industrial plant at the edge of the nation's fourth-largest city may be to blame for the excess pollution.

Researchers know that large clouds of ethylene and propylene billowed over the city Oct. 7, and believe the gases were produced by one of the plants. The search has been narrowed down to 25 factories, all clustered around the Houston Ship Channel, home of the nation's largest concentration of petrochemical plants.

Experts say unusually dry weather played a part in trapping dirty air over Houston, and Los Angeles may very well reclaim the title in the future.

"We'll probably pass it back and forth with each other for a few more years,'' said Gene McMullen, who has been monitoring pollution levels for the Health Department in Houston for decades. "It'll depend on whose weather is worse.''

Meanwhile, Texas is staring at an EPA ultimatum. The state has until next month to come up with a plan to clean its skies by 2007. The federal government has threatened to take away money for Texas highway construction if the state doesn't make progress soon.

"These reductions are going to have to be extremely steep,'' said Jeff Saitas, executive director of the state conservation commission. "It's going to press the limits of cooperation.''

Critics claim Gov. George W. Bush stopped short of forcing the plants to clean up emissions because he was collecting campaign contributions from employees and lobbyists.

"Rather than clear the air, Gov. Bush has ceded to the demands of some of his biggest donors," Tom Smith, director of the consumer group Public Citizen, said.

Bush officials dismiss the barbs, contending the governor has reduced industrial pollution and toxic waste in Texas.

"Gov. Bush makes his decisions based on what's right fr Texas," Bush campaign spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday.

Public Research Works, an Austin consumer group, says that between March and June, Bush accepted at least $973,000 from people tied to so-called "grandfathered" plants – older plants that were not required to meet the emissions standards outlined in the 1970s legislation.