(Houston – September 28, 2020) To streamline how the Houston region responds to hazardous air pollution, the city of Houston, Harris County and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), with support from Houston Endowment, are undertaking a $1.1 million effort to create an inventory of monitoring equipment across agencies, expand monitoring capability and identify the facilities that most threaten public health.
“The goal of this innovative collaboration is to reduce disaster risk and everyday air pollution by identifying and closely monitoring facilities that pose the greatest threats to public health and safety,” said Dr. Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at EDF. “The Houston area has endured six chemical disasters too many in the past 18 months. This disturbing trend needs to end, especially as new threats like COVID-19 layer additional health burdens in communities already overwhelmed by pollution.”
The effort, which outlines multiple steps over an 18-month period that will improve the coordination of air quality monitoring and information sharing, was born after a rash of industrial fires and explosions, including at Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) in Deer Park in March 2019, released harmful chemicals into the air in the Houston area. A Harris County-commissioned analysis of the ITC response found the need for more coordination and enhanced monitoring capabilities. The string of fires showed the gaps in the existing network of stationary monitors – gaps that are critically important for understanding the true community exposures that may result from these disasters.
“Residents in Harris County should never have to worry about the quality of the air they breathe or the environmental conditions in which they’re raising their families,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “For far too long, our county looked the other way when it came to making the necessary investments to keep up with industry and protect our region. Even with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 we’ll continue to build partnerships to make sure that we do everything to strengthen our environment and hold polluters accountable.”
Since the ITC fires, Harris County has invested more than $11 million to build a state-of-the-art air monitoring network, increased the size of the pollution control department more than 50 percent and added resources for HazMat first responders. The actions taken thus far represent the most significant enhancement of county environmental protections in at least 30 years.
By working together, the city and county can use their combined monitoring capabilities to identify facilities for additional inspections and increased oversight before a disaster occurs, Craft said. The partners also will develop best practices for effective use of monitoring resources and spot state-level deficiencies in enforcement.
“Instead of waiting on air quality complaints to come to us, this project puts us in a position to proactively look for facilities unlawfully releasing dangerous pollution into our communities,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Bad actors should be on notice. We now have more staff and equipment to identify facilities that use the cover of darkness and natural disasters as an opportunity to pollute. Houstonians have the right to breathe safe, clean air.”
The recent purchases by the city and Harris County are especially important because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality houses its mobile monitoring units in Austin, making a quick deployment to Houston challenging when disasters occur.
The purchased instruments include the AROMA-VOC analyzer, designed by California-based Entanglement Technologies to provide rapid and precise information on public health risks for emergency responders and people living near oil refineries, chemical plants and other potential sources of toxic contamination.
“High quality data is critical to respond effectively to emergency situations involving chemical releases,” said Tony Miller, PhD, chief executive officer of Entanglement Technologies. “We have designed our technology to provide decision-makers and stakeholders with actionable data on the spot. Data is the key to determine what harm, if any, has been caused to surrounding communities and the environment.”
The project involves multiple agencies and departments from the city of Houston and Harris County.
The Houston Health Department, Harris County Pollution Control Services, and the city’s Bureau of Pollution Control will manage the monitoring campaigns, as well as the data collection and analysis to identify high-risk facilities. This project will include coordinated monitoring on nights and weekends, when many pollution events occur.
The offices of the Harris County District Attorney, Harris County Attorney, and Houston’s City Attorney will participate in advisory roles.
“We are so inspired to see the City of Houston and Harris County working together across communities to protect the health and safety of the people of greater Houston,” said Elizabeth Love, Senior Program Officer, Houston Endowment.
EDF is serving as lead organization in coordinating activities among all agencies related to the implementation of the project.
“We need government at all levels to do everything possible to protect Texans from industrial fires and explosions and preventable releases of harmful chemicals into the air,” Craft said. “The city of Houston and Harris County are showing tremendous leadership by joining forces to combat a problem that goes beyond jurisdictional boundaries. It is my hope that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will join them to ensure clean air, every day, for everyone in the region.”
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