Energy & Environment

Harris County Amps Up Air, Water Quality Monitoring For Beta

It’s part of an initiative to bring real-time data to residents during storms and industrial disasters. 

An oil and gas refinery near La Porte, on Aug. 28, 2020. Harris County Pollution Control Services is conducting extra air quality monitoring during Tropical Storm Beta, with a focus on areas located next to industry.

In light of Tropical Storm Beta, Harris County Pollution Control Services is beefing up its air and water quality monitoring, as part of an initiative to bring real-time data to residents during storms and disasters.

The county collected baseline data ahead of Beta's landfall and continues to monitor both air and water quality. The monitoring focuses on areas next to heavy industrial activity, mostly on the east side of the county.

Nancy Meilahn Fowler, deputy director of Pollution Control's technical services division, said there are two teams taking air quality measurements along predetermined routes.

"They’re also doing general observations of things like odors, if they visually see any indicators of excessive flaring, things like that," she said.

Chemical plants and refineries often shutdown before storms to keep workers safe and prevent a major incident. But just the process of shutting down can lead to the release of thousands of pounds of pollutants. During Hurricane Laura, an estimated 4 million pounds of air pollutants were emitted as a result of Texas facilities shutting down, according to data analyzed by Environment Texas.

But Meilahn said those types of shutdowns are more common during wind storms, like Hurricane Laura, rather than heavy rain events, like Tropical Storm Beta.

"From an air quality perspective, a storm with higher winds or with more potential for power disruption is going to have more potential releases than one with a heavy rain," she said. "In fact, rainfall helps clear the air in general. So it’s kind of a benefit in that way."

Meilahn said abnormal emissions could occur during Beta if there's a power outage or damage from flooding. But so far, their monitoring hasn't shown any cause for concern.

All the data is publicly available on the Pollution Control Services website. Hurricane Laura was the first time the department captured baseline air quality data for a storm and made it publicly available.

It's part of a push to make air quality data more accessible to the public. The department is doing similar monitoring during industrial disasters like the Watson Grinding & Manufacturing explosion.

“There are a lot of industrial locations that are adjacent to neighborhoods,” said Andrew Brady, deputy director of the agency’s operations and policy division. “Because of that close proximity, it’s very important that the citizens know essentially what’s in their backyard.”

Brady said they're also taking water quality samples during Beta in areas vulnerable to flooding where storm sewer overflows or industrial discharges could impact waterways.

“We’re looking for things such as fecal coliform near wastewater treatment plants,” he said. “We also test for things such as oil and grease, dissolved and suspended solids, metals, volatiles, organics, and sometimes various chemical compounds, which may be specific to an operation that’s being monitored. So if a particular plant is making a product, we’re going to look for indicators of that product in the wastewater stream.”

Brady said so far they haven't observed any contamination.

“Everyone has an A on their scorecard right now,” he said. “There haven’t been any changes in operations at the plants that we’re monitoring; all are functioning normally.”

You can view the air quality data, here.