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Texas Passes On New Park Benches Equipped With Air Analyzers

In a growing number of cities across the country, the federal government is installing what look like park benches in public places. But they’re not just a place to sit. They actually have a scientific purpose. But is it a purpose Texas doesn’t agree with?


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EPA bench
Sign on the bench describes how the pollution data can be viewed on the web. Photo is courtesy of the District Department of the Environment

In a growing number of cities across the country, the federal government is installing what look like park benches in public places. But they’re not just a place to sit. They actually have a scientific purpose. 

They started springing up two years ago. The first was in Durham where a North Carolina Public Radio reporter sat down on one outside a library.

“If you sit down and look up you see solar panels,” said reporter Leoneda Inge in her radio story.

Last month another one popped up in Philadelphia where KYW Newsradio had the story.

“The system is solar and wind-powered and has a built-in bench,” reported KYW’s John McDevitt.

And earlier this month, yet another one appeared “right in the middle of Kansas City Kansas,” said Eric Kirkendall, who was there as officials unveiled it.

“Oh it was great fun. The bench looks a little like a typical park bench with a little gazebo built on top of it,” said Kirkendall, an activist in Kansas for clean air which is why he wanted to see the new park bench.

“You can sit in it and relax, very comfortable bench. But you can also take a look at the air quality on a little panel built right into the bench,” Kirkendall told News 88.7.

That’s right. It’s an air pollution monitoring station disguised as a park bench. It’s the brainchild of some scientists at the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re very excited about this system, it’ll be useful to the research community where we can measure in more locations and connect air pollution data to health,” said Gayle Hagler in an Environmental Protection Agency video. 

one Village Green Project pollution bench monitor
One of the EPA’s Village Green Project pollution monitors is at the National Zoo in Washington DC. Photo is courtesy of the District Department of the Environment.

Hagler is one of the EPA scientists who is working on the Village Green Project

The monitors measure dust, ozone, and weather conditions and feed it all to a website. In addition to Philidelphia and Kansas City, three other cities will have the benches: Washington D.C., Hartford, and Oklahoma City (Durham N.C. was a pilot project).

Houston almost made the list.

“Initially, we had thought we were going to bring a Village Green monitor in January of this year,” said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.

The group was working to have one of the Village Green monitors placed at Bastian Elementary, a school that sits on a busy stretch of Bellfort Avenue on Houston’s south side.

“[But ] it didn’t work out. It turned out the application that was submitted by the City of Houston required participation from the state agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The state agency declined to commit those resources. So without Texas’ cooperation, the City of Houston could not bring its Village Monitor to Houston.” Shelley said. 

Shelley said it was a disappointment. But was it a surprise that the state of Texas didn’t want to work with the federal EPA on something that brings attention to air pollution?

Texas is home to oil & gas drilling, refineries and coal-burning power plants and produces far more pollution linked to global warming than any other state. But Texas also has a history of challenging EPA regulations and of downplaying the potential risks to people’s health.

The TCEQ told us in an email that it would be “incorrect” to say it was trying to thwart efforts to bring attention to air pollution. The TCEQ said it does lots of monitoring statewide and makes the data available on its website. What’s more, the TCEQ said funds and resources that might have gone to the Village Green project had already been committed to other federal monitoring sites.

But activist Shelley said his past experience dealing with state regulators leads him to believe Texas is less enthusiastic than he is about making pollution data public. 

“There seems to be a fundamental disagreement about how much air quality information the public should have, what the public should be doing with that sort of information,” said Shelley.

Shelley is now working with the City of Houston to find other sources of funding and he thinks he has: a federal grant that may make it possible to have one of the Village Green benches installed at Bastian Elementary by the end of this year.

Photo of Bastian Elementary
Bastian Elementary in Houston is the tentative location for one of the EPA’s Village Green pollution monitors. Photo by: Dave Fehling