FRISCO - An area of Frisco that encompasses downtown, several schools and neighborhoods will soon be in violation of new federal lead pollution standards.
The 2.4-square-mile nonattainment area, which the city and Exide Technologies Inc. contend is too big, will carry one of 20 such designations nationwide when they become final in mid-October. Few of those sites are in counties or cities as densely populated as Frisco.
The designation means the air in the heart of Frisco is unhealthy to breathe. A decades-old lead smelter operated by Exide that crushes and recycles used automotive and industrial batteries is to blame. The plant's lead emissions are among the highest in the south-central United States.
Lead is toxic, even in minute amounts, and is especially harmful to children. It can cause behavior problems, learning disorders and brain damage in children. In adults, lead poisoning has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.
"This is really the first step," Guy Donaldson, a chief of air planning at the Environmental Protection Agency, said. "The steps that bring about better air quality [come] when the plans are put into place to make the pollution controls and get emissions reduced."
The nonattainment status comes as the EPA enforces a much stricter lead air standard, known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. Texas environmental regulators will need to outline a plan within three years of how the area will shed that status.
However, both Exide and Frisco city officials disagree with the proposed boundaries, which extend beyond Pizza Hut Park to the north and Frisco High School to the south.
The nonattainment area is based on computer modeling that predicts air lead levels when Exide is releasing the maximum permitted emissions. But Exide usually operates at half those emissions. Melissa Kuskie of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in an e-mail that air modeling shows lead concentrations "to be roughly two to three times higher than actual monitored values."
Exide and city officials argue that the area should be much smaller and based on actual data from three air-quality monitors near the plant. In a letter sent Friday to the EPA, Frisco City Manager George Purefoy urged the federal agency to reconsider the boundaries.
"We certainly want to protect the public," Purefoy said in an interview. "But why not use real-world data?"
Purefoy said the modeling unnecessarily labels some properties as having a problem when they might not. Plus, he said, the nonattainment area is essentially a rectangle. "There's no way [lead emissions are] evenly dispersed around the plant like that," he said.
State environmental officials said they used modeling based on the plant's permitted emissions to account for any future increase. EPA officials agreed with the state's procedures and recommend adopting the state's boundaries.
"Regardless of the size of the nonattainment area, the actions the Exide Frisco recycling center must take to meet requirements of the new NAAQS and protect the health and safety of its neighbors remain the same," Exide said in a statement.
The company said it's already trying to reduce lead emissions. Company officials said they have installed new dust collection filters on several bathhouses, which help remove tiny lead particles, and plan other upgrades.
Texas environmental regulators started the process to designate the area as nonattainment about a year ago because air-quality monitors near Exide were recording lead levels that exceeded the new, more stringent standard for lead. EPA accepted the state's recommendation this summer, and the public can send comments about the designation to the federal agency through today.
As of Friday, no comments had been received.
The plant has been under heightened scrutiny in the past year because monitor readings show that Exide won't meet new standards for lead, which tightened tenfold to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. As those new standards were being implemented, Exide officials proposed expanding production.
While Exide's application to expand was pending, it also proposed more than a million dollars in new pollution controls. Exide withdrew the application amid public outcry last October.
Federal environmental regulators continue to monitor Exide. Recently the EPA took soil samples from multiple sites on and around the plant. City and state officials are waiting for those results before starting a health risk study for Frisco.
In recent months, city officials have been working with the state to relocate two monitors from Exide's property and put in a third at the city's police department, which borders plant property on the south. A fourth monitor will remain in the neighborhood directly north of the plant.