Texas’ air quality monitors were offline during critical periods, KPRC 2 Investigates confirmed

Louisiana, New Jersey among states that keep equipment on during inclement weather

The policy differs from Louisiana and New Jersey

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, just before Hurricane Harvey arrived, disconnected dozens of air quality monitors in the Houston area.

The decision, codified in an email to staff from a TCEQ Deputy Director of Compliance and Enforcement, effectively left the Houston region with no publicly available real-time air quality monitoring before, during, and after the storm.

Air quality monitoring in one of the largest industrial complexes in the world is critical during storms because plants and refineries shut down and startup facilities, operations that typically produce much higher pollution.

Excerpt from 8/23/17 email sent by TCEQ's Kelly Cook, Deputy Director, Compliance and Enforcement, to staff. (No)

“The monitors are paid for by tax dollars and they’re meant to monitor our air during good times and during bad times; but especially during natural disasters,” said Yvette Arellano, director of Fenceline Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

Find your closest TCEQ Air Quality Monitor (fixed site): https://tceq.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=ab6f85198bda483a997a6956a8486539

TCEQ has long defended the policy to “turn off” air quality monitoring equipment just before storms arrive, as necessary to protect expensive, tax-payer-funded equipment. However, the equipment in most cases is not removed from the site.

KPRC 2 Investigates has learned that Louisiana, another hurricane-prone state, does not turn off its air quality monitoring equipment prior to storms.

“They run until the power goes down, that’s correct,” said Jason Meyers, director of Air Planning and Assessment for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. “There’s the risk of a surge or whatever, so we have concerns about it, but over the last couple of years, the storms have been pretty active, and we just haven’t seen that much of an issue.”

New Jersey, like Louisiana, suffered the effects of Hurricane Ida’s cross-country trek, but the state’s Department of Environmental Protection did not shut down its fixed monitoring stations at any point.

In another email obtained by KPRC 2 Investigates, TCEQ’s Director of the Air Permit Division told staff not to issue deficiencies to companies applying for new or modified air permits in the midst of Hurricane Harvey.

Industrial entities regularly apply for permit modification when their manufacturing processes and requirements change.

8/24/17 email from TCEQ's Director of Air Permits Division (at the time) to staff. (No)

Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophic weather event, required extraordinary measures from businesses, government agencies, and individuals.

But critics argue, TCEQ is too friendly with the industry it is charged with environmentally monitoring on behalf of the public.

“I would say that there are no emails going to the communities telling them what they should be doing in the midst of these events, and what they should be doing to protect their personal health when you’re seeing 300 parts per billion benzene after damage at a tank and so forth,” said Dr. Elena Craft, Senior Director of Climate and Health for the Environmental Defense Fund.

We asked TCEQ to explain the meaning of the email, Ryan Vise, Director of External Relations for TCEQ stated the following via email:

“The language highlighted in the email is in relation to the deficiency process used by the Air Permits Division and did not suspend any requirements relating to monitoring, air quality, or compliance with existing authorizations. The deficiency process is part of the application review process for new permits or amendments to existing permits. These are pending applications that have not been approved. Permit reviewers send out notices of deficiencies to inform applicants of any deficient items found during the application review. The notice contains the deficient items and a timeline for the applicant to respond. Also, I appreciate you giving us an opportunity for an interview, but at this time we are going to decline the request. Let me know if you have particular questions on our stationary air monitors and I will get those back to you in a follow-up email as quickly as possible.”

TCEQ has improved its fleet of mobile air monitors since Hurricane Harvey and last year TCEQ unveiled new tools for emergency response: https://www.tceq.texas.gov/news/releases/tceq-unveils-new-and-improved-emergency-response-assets

About the Authors:

Award-winning broadcast journalist covering local, regional, national and international stories. Recognized in the industry for subject matter expertise including: Legal/Court Research, the Space Industry, Education, Environmental Issues, Underserved Populations and Data Visualization.