Texas rolls out mobile pollution monitoring capabilities following failures during Hurricane Harvey

The TCEQ's Tuesday announcement was held in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood at Hartman Park, next to Valero’s Houston Refinery. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

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HOUSTON – Texas officials on Tuesday said the state’s environmental agency has added greater capacity to quickly monitor pollution across the state during storms and other disaster events, such as chemical fires.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality purchased a new van and retrofitted two other vans earlier this year with technology to monitor emissions in real time while the vehicles are in motion, part of what agency officials say is a broader effort to keep track of emissions during and after air quality emergencies.

The agency has invested about $2.2 million in the initiative over the last three years, officials said, which includes the three mobile air monitoring vans, four drones and three automated gas monitors to be placed in the Houston Ship Channel.

The effort comes three years after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when the TCEQ struggled to resume monitoring during and after the storm as companies released millions of pounds of hazardous air pollution, according to estimates by regulators and environmental groups.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General found in 2019 that the TCEQ didn’t start monitoring air quality soon enough after the hurricane, which drifted over the Houston area and pounded the region with 60 inches of rain for four days.

Toby Baker, the executive director of the TCEQ, said the agency’s effort to add mobile air monitoring capacity was in motion before the EPA OIG report, but acknowledged that Hurricane Harvey was a turning point for environmental regulators.

“We learned some lessons with Hurricane Harvey,” Baker said. “When a hurricane comes in, we take our stationary monitors down because the hurricane winds will damage them, or we will lose power to them. What we found after Harvey was meaningful criticism that we didn’t have the ability to fill that gap. So, the Legislature helped us and stepped in.”

The Texas Legislature earmarked about $1 million in 2019 for the TCEQ to upgrade its emergency response technology; the rest came from the agency’s budget. Tuesday’s announcement was held in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood at Hartman Park, next to Valero’s Houston Refinery, where a storage tank notoriously collapsed during Hurricane Harvey — one of the unmonitored pollution events during the storm.

The extent of the emissions released by chemical plants, refineries and other industrial operators along the Gulf Coast during and after Hurricane Harvey is unknown due to the lag in air monitoring, according to the EPA report.

With the new technology, TCEQ officials said the agency will more easily be able to deploy its experts during an emergency and provide important environmental data to local officials, who can then decide what precautions the public should take.

“We can drive around in a neighborhood and effectively, in 10 minutes, see if there’s a problem,” said Tom Randolph, a monitoring specialist for the TCEQ who runs the equipment in the mobile emissions vans. “In the old days, it may be a week before we get that information to somebody. Now, we can do that in a matter of minutes if it’s really something of concern.”

Hurricane Laura, which hit the Texas and Louisiana border in August, was the first trial run of the new van, which was purchased by the agency in April. The vans add to the state’s existing network of around 200 stationary air monitors throughout Texas (about two-thirds of the monitors are owned by the state, the rest by private partners).

Bobby Janecka, a TCEQ commissioner who was appointed in 2019, said that he hopes the new technology will eventually be stationed at all of the agency’s regional offices – for now, the vans will deploy from Austin.

“All parts of the agency agree, these are really valuable,” he said. “Getting out quickly and immediately into the field for monitoring is, more and more, a pressing need and expectation from the public. I’m pleased to see we’re able to rise to that challenge.”

Disclosure: Valero has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.