The EPA's Office of Inspector General finds that air monitoring during Harvey happened too late and didn't create usable data.

EPA report confirms air monitoring during Hurricane Harvey was inadequate

December 17th, 2019

The EPA's Office of Inspector General finds that air monitoring during Harvey happened too late and didn't create usable data.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General released on Monday, December 16, 2019, a report about the local, state and federal response to the 340 tons of additional industrial air pollution in Harris and Jefferson counties produced in the earliest days of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, finding that air monitoring was “not initiated in time” and that, once it was, it did not create “data considered suitable for making health-based assessments.”

The report also finds that "public communication of air monitoring results was limited."

“At a time when we expect to see the highest emissions events, there’s literally no monitoring,” Dr. Elena Craft, the senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund, tells the Houston Chronicle's Perla Trevizo.

"It tells me that there’s a failure on the part of (the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) to have a reasonable plan to address air pollution during these kinds of disasters."

The report shows that the EPA and Texas, as Craft sa in a statement, “are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to assess and communicate threats to people’s health during emergencies.”

Ilan Levin, the Texas director of the Environmental Integrity Project, tells Trevizo, “When the state and EPA said everything is safe, they didn’t know that to be true.”

"It is long overdue for the EPA to take aggressive steps toward being better prepared," Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, tells E&E News' Sean Reilly, since "communities have suffered the adverse physical and mental health impacts" from disasters made more frequent and more severe by climate change.

The report suggests that the state’s “thresholds” used to determine the threats to residents in communities near the industrial facilities “may not be sufficiently protective,” since those thresholds do not take into account “cumulative” exposures to more than one pollutant at a time or a lifetime of exposure.

The report also describes the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which started shutting down its monitors when the storm made landfall, as "an impediment to obtaining information." The Texas Tribune's Kiah Collier reports that TCEQ "largely declined to participate in the review, canceling meetings and refusing to respond to written questions."

Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen's Texas office, sa in a statement, "TCEQ’s refusal to cooperate … leaves little hope that the state’s response to the next storm will be any better."

Published six months before the start of hurricane season in June, the report recommends "that the EPA develop guidance for emergency air monitoring in heavily industrialized areas and methods to provide public access to data, as well as put together a plan to communicate how it is resolving the concerns of the public," reports Trevizo.

Dr. Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science office for the City of Houston Health Department says that those "recommendations are in line with what we see. We can work together to learn from those and create a better system.”

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