Houston Matters

Environmental Regulators Rejected NASA’s Offer To Monitor Air Pollution After Harvey

An investigative story by the LA Times reports the space agency offered to deploy a sophisticated airplane to monitor pollution levels over the area the hurricane impacted. The TCEQ says the data it would have collected wouldn’t have been useful because it wouldn’t have been gathered at ground level.

An aerial view of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017. Hurricane Harvey formed in the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in southeastern Texas, bringing record flooding and destruction to the region. U.S. military assets supported FEMA as well as state and local authorities in rescue and relief efforts.
This file photo shows an aerial view of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017. Hurricane Harvey formed in the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in southeastern Texas, bringing record flooding and destruction to the region.

An investigative story by the LA Times reports that NASA’s planned mission to help with the analysis of pollution levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey was cancelled after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) expressed misgivings about the space agency’s involvement in the efforts to collect pollution data.

According to the LA Times reporting, which reviewed emails from the EPA and the TCEQ, NASA offered to deploy a DC-8 airplane equipped with sophisticated air samplers to monitor pollution levels over the vast area in Texas impacted by Harvey.

Susanne Rust, one of the reporters who wrote the story, told Houston Matters on Wednesday that EPA and TCEQ officials “were concerned that the data might be confusing, that it could overlap with their own and cause more confusion or could conflict with their data.” Rust said the EPA has told her they were in Texas “at the pleasure of the state.”

Detection power

She added that the airplane NASA was proposing to fly over Texas can identify approximately 450 types of chemical compounds. “This NASA plane would have flown the entire region and would have been able to take a really broad picture and give a much broader understanding of what the air quality was like,” Rust said.

During Harvey’s aftermath, the TCEQ and the EPA used ground technology and also flew a single-engine plane that took photos and used infrared technology to monitor pollution levels.

Elena Craft, a senior director with the Environmental Defense Fund, told Houston Matters that “having an instrument like the one that NASA had proposed would have helped to provide a more comprehensive picture of the air pollution in the region.”

Craft noted that the number of irregular emissions of air contaminants during the storm’s aftermath equates to what would normally happen in a six-month period.

She said the decision by the EPA and TCEQ wasn’t the right one, because “as scientists, we always want more data, it helps provide a clearer picture of the true situation.”

TCEQ’s and EPA’s response

The TCEQ said in a statement that the type of data the NASA plane collects isn’t useful to determine impacts to public health because “it monitors air quality at flying altitude, not ground levels where people are located.”

The agency added that NASA’s offer of data collection was made two weeks after the storm and they were proposing to fly even later.

The statement also said that the data collected by the TCEQ and the EPA through various means, including helicopters equipped with Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras, the EPA’s Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) plane, the TCEQ’s air monitoring network and investigator teams on the ground, “were useful in determining sources of concern so that teams could be sent to investigate further.”

The EPA also sent a statement highlighting the resources they deployed during the response efforts, including the missions the ASPECT plane performed by monitoring a series of fires at a chemical facility owned by Arkema in Crosby.

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