Channel 2 Investigates reveals Harris County air quality monitors not equipped to handle emergencies

DEER PARK, Texas – The company president in charge of maintenance of a Deer Park air quality monitor that was not in service at the beginning of the Intercontinental Terminals Co. chemical fire said the region's network of air quality monitors is not intended for emergency use.

"This equipment was never intended for emergency response. It does not provide instantly timely data," Carol Meyer, Orsat's president and project manager said. 

The state of Texas -- specifically the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -- contracts with Orsat to provide on-site maintenance of the fixed Deer Park air quality monitor, located at the Spencerview Athletic Complex in Deer Park.

"If you need to move people, this isn't for that. You're not going to see the results until an hour and a half later," Meyer said by phone.

Harris County Pollution Control Director Bob Allen had pointed to the network of 40-plus air quality monitors in the Houston area as a valuable resource for residents during the fire.

But the Deer Park monitoring site was down for hours on March 17 and March 18.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia wanted to know why, so he wrote a letter to the TCEQ, and got a response. 

READ: Letter from Commissioner Adrian Garcia to Chairman Niermann

File: letter-from-Commissioner-Adrian-Garcia-to-Chairman-Niermann_20190401160845

The TCEQ's response notes that broken equipment was being repaired from March 13 to March 16, just before the fire started. That equipment was responsible for recording airborne volatile organic compounds, such as benzene.

But even after the equipment was fixed, it was subject to several days of calibration, as explained by the TCEQ in its letter to Garcia.

Because of the extended downtime, data gaps and 90-minute delay in when the public gets to see the data, the equipment is not ideal in emergency situations, yet it is principally the equipment Harris County residents were told to rely on to monitor toxins in the air. 

READ: TCEQ explains problem with Deer Park monitor 

File: TCEQ explains problem with Deer Park monitor_20190401160847

"That's a very serious issue and TCEQ obviously knows the details of what's happening. The truth is we need more capacity for air monitoring," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday.

Hidalgo said she is working with Harris County commissioners and the TCEQ to develop a more robust and reliable system but that, in the meantime, the public can refer to the fleet of mobile monitoring devices currently deployed in the Deer Park area, which is accessible here: https://www.readyharris.org/Deer-Park-Fire