Energy & Environment

TCEQ Unveils New Technology For Monitoring Air Pollution During Hurricanes And Other Disasters

After facing criticism for how it handled air monitoring during Hurricane Harvey, the state environmental agency has focused on upgrading its monitoring capabilities during disasters.

The TCEQ’s new SMART van can measure 16 different pollutants and analyze results in real-time while driving up to 35 mph.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) revealed new technology in Houston this week that the agency hopes will be instrumental in detecting air pollutants after hurricanes and other disasters.

The new technology comes after the TCEQ faced criticism in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey for its slow response to monitoring air quality. A report by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General found that the TCEQ’s air monitors were turned off for days during the storm and weren't on when some emissions events occurred.

In response, state lawmakers approved an additional $1 million for the TCEQ to upgrade two of its existing mobile air monitoring vans and purchase a third van, which they unveiled this week in Houston.

TCEQ officials say the Houston Ship Channel, the Beaumont/Port Arthur area and Corpus Christi's Refinery Row will all benefit from the three new vehicles, which they say will aid investigators' efforts to locate concentrations of emissions in these heavily industrialized areas.

"In the instance of a hurricane, in places where there's high industrial activity, sometimes you have companies that are bringing their systems offline in anticipation of a storm if they're going to be a direct hit. So when those companies start up again, those are times when they can release emissions," said Brandy Brooks, assistant director of the TCEQ’s monitoring division.

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.

The new Strategic Mobile Air Reconnaissance Technology Rapid Assessment Survey van, or SMART van, can collect and map data of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and other air pollutants in transit and in real-time at disaster locations. Brooks said the mobile van was first used in Port Arthur, where the largest oil refinery in the country is located, following Hurricane Laura in late August.

"In the old days, we'd have to go back and analyze that data, and it may be a week or a month later before we got that report out to someone," said Tom Randolph, environmental manager with TCEQ's monitoring division. "Well by then the problem might've gone away, so now we can do this near real-time."

Upgraded equipment in two other vans can sample more than 1,000 different pollutants.

TCEQ officials said the two upgraded stationary vehicles now have the capacity to sample more than 1,000 pollutants, including formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, methane and ozone.

"As you can imagine, having all of that data is really expanding our capability in collecting pollutant data in those communities near the Ship Channel," said Brooks.

The TCEQ also plans on using four drones that will enable live stream video, while investigators look into a post-disaster scene. The officials say it adds a "new dimension" to their ability to monitor data quickly, so they can make it available to the public.

Elena Craft with the Environmental Defense Fund told Houston Matters that the new air monitoring vans are a good first step.

“One of the things that we have been tracking for a long time has been the fact that we need to deploy air monitoring equipment all the time, not just after these kinds of events," she said. "We’ve demonstrated time and time again that ambient levels of different types of pollution are too high across the city, and so doing something to reduce those ambient concentrations I think needs to be a priority for the agency."

She said air monitoring is just one element of a comprehensive plan.

"Other things that need to be considered would be enforcing air permits for example, conducting investigations of facilities, tracking emission events, that kind of thing," she said.

Harris County is also ramping up efforts to provide real-time air quality monitoring during pollution events in response to a string of chemical fires in recent years.