Energy & Environment

Harris County Launches New Air Monitoring Initiative With $1 Million Grant

The county will be adding 70 new air monitors to its fleet and partnering with an outside research group for data analysis.

The first new air monitor will be installed in Hartman Park in Manchester. A Valero refinery sits directly across the street from the park’s entrance.

Harris County is launching a new air monitoring initiative to improve its emergency response during chemical disasters and severe weather events.

The county will be adding roughly 70 new air monitors to its network, including stationary, mobile and handheld units. It comes through a $1 million grant from the American Chemistry Council Foundation.

The boost in air monitoring is in response to a slew of chemical disasters that impacted the Houston area in 2019, including a fire that broke out at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in March. That fire burned for days, sending a plume of black smoke over the area. It prompted a shelter-in-place order for Deer Park, closed down six school districts and raised concerns about exposure to benzene and other air pollutants.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said that fire also revealed gaps in local air monitoring.

"On that day, when citizens were begging for good information, accurate information about how is the air risky to their health, we couldn’t give it to them," he said.

Garcia, who is leading the administration of the air monitoring grant, said another key component is that the county will be partnering with an outside research group — the Houston Advanced Research Council, or HARC — for independent analysis of the air quality data.

HARC will also help develop protocols for interpreting and communicating air quality data during disasters.

"This is going to be an opportunity for us to ensure that the data is being translated in a way that everyone can understand and appreciate," Garcia said.

The first air monitor is being installed in Houston's Manchester neighborhood in Hartman Park, which sits right across the street from the Valero refinery. Other stationary monitors will be placed in Seabrook, Barret Station near Crosby, River Terrace Park in North Channel and Fairmont Park in La Porte. More than 50 handheld units will also be given to first responders, including the fire departments in Houston and Baytown.

The initiative is the latest in a series of efforts by the city and county to amp up air monitoring in the region.

Last year, the city of Houston and Harris County announced a different $1.1 million initiative in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund to streamline air monitoring between the city and county. Harris County Pollution Control Services has also beefed up its monitoring during storms and disasters and launched a portal to make the data publicly available.

For a more in-depth look at chemical disasters in Texas, like the ITC fire, check out Fire Triangle, a new podcast by Texas Public Radio and Houston Public Media.