Last year, during Texas’s devastating winter freeze, oil refineries, chemical manufacturers and other industrial plants emitted a whopping 4.7m pounds of excess chemicals into the air that millions of people breathe.
The storm was an example of how industrial emissions can spike during and immediately after natural disasters. But in a surprising move last Friday, Texas state regulators announced that wide-scale deployment of agency staff for air monitoring in these critical moments to be “often unnecessary.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) admits repeated gaps in its tracking of industrial pollution in the first days of natural disasters. Advocates worry that failing to measure air pollution at the time when emissions may be greatest has an adverse effect on the marginalized communities burdened by unhealthy air. This move comes just as the state braces for another major winter storm.
The Texas gulf coast is home to one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical and chemical plants in the world. Industrial plants usually stop operating ahead of storms and hurricanes to avoid accidents. However, these shutdowns and reboots can cause increased emissions as facilities burn off excess chemicals in a process known as flaring, clear lines and vents, and switch to less efficient operation modes.
The state regulator has a network of more than 200 stationary air monitors across the state. Most go offline ahead of the storm to avoid damage. Before regulators can switch to mobile and handheld monitoring, there is a lapse in real-time knowledge of what people are breathing. And it is during that gap that increased amounts of carcinogens like benzene, highly irritant sulfur dioxide, and other hazardous chemicals are released. Exposure to these pollutants is correlated with respiratory diseases like asthma, various types of cancer and can worsen existing heart disease.
Air samples from before, during and after natural disasters show a dramatic rise in emissions from unplanned or unavoidable breakdowns (also known as “upsets”) at the time that air monitoring stations went offline. Ahead of last year’s winter storm Uri, for instance, state monitoring dropped from roughly 16,000 air samples the day before the storm to less than 1,000 the next day. The only data that exists on emissions for that period is self-reported by facilities.
Asked for comment by the Guardian, the regulator walked back its previous announcement that monitoring was “often unnecessary”, and offered that they do consider air monitoring to be “necessary” following natural events – but that “targeted air monitoring” may be most effective. The agency did not explain what this entails.
TCEQ also contends that extreme events themselves can prevent effective monitoring. “During the first few days of a natural disaster, collection of air monitoring samples may be physically impossible due to loss of power, flooding, impassable roadways,” a spokesperson wrote to the Guardian.
After assessing samples from six previous disasters and accidents, TCEQ concluded that only a handful of air quality measurements exceeded levels for potential health risks to the public.
But recent natural disasters show that continued monitoring is crucial, say advocates, who worry the state cannot manage what it does not measure in the first place.
In the Houston area, for instance, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on 27 August 2017 – but air monitors there had been shut down days prior, remaining offline until 6 September. The state monitoring network was fully restored only by the end of the month.
“During this entire time, TCEQ was not monitoring [emissions],” said Corey Williams of Air Alliance Houston.
To make matters worse, during natural disasters, the Texas governor can waive rules that require facilities to report unauthorized emissions, further reducing available information on storm-related pollution.
One of the biggest Harvey-related disasters that went unrecognized for days is the 31 August failure of a huge fuel storage tank. What was initially reported as an estimated spill of 1,000 barrels of gasoline, turned out to be 11,000 barrels, or nearly half a million gallons. Residents of Galena Park, a Houston suburb where the spill originated, complained of a strong smell of gasoline and burning eyes until the state finally acknowledged the extent of the spill, almost two weeks later.
“That’s an example of the kind of events that could happen whenever nobody’s looking,” Williams said.