A Texas-Sized Hole in Pollution Data

A Texas-Sized Hole in Pollution Data

One of the ancillary tragedies of climate-exacerbated extreme storms is the release of dangerous petrochemicals that occurs when refineries and plants are forced to shut down their operations in a hurry. These chemicals -- which include benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter -- have all been proven to contribute to higher incidences of cancer, asthma, and respiratory challenges.

It's an environmental issue, but it's also an environmental justice issue. The plants using these chemicals are often located in poorer communities and communities of color. Residents often have fewer means to escape dangerous weather and are thus more likely to be exposed to the additional chemicals and carcinogens resulting from emergency shut-downs.

Now, a new report from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reveals a horrifying fact: Combined, at least 20 million pounds of these pollutants were released during Hurricanes Harvey (Aug 2017), Laura (Aug 2020), and Delta (Oct 2020), and Winter Storm Uri (Feb 2021), but air monitors were often forced offline so the impacts are likely far worse than Texas has measured.

KHOU 11: Viewer video of flaring following power outage in Texas City, February 4, 2022.

Earthworks: In Texas, govt protects oil & gas industry from the public, August 23, 2021.

Why This Matters

What isn't measured can't be understood. The health impacts of climate change are far-reaching, and they may be worse than experts previously thought, particularly if monitoring is inadequate of factors like the chemicals and pollutants released during storm events.

The Texas Gulf Coast is home to one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical and chemical plants in the world. With more than 200 stationary monitors across Texas, the state’s air monitoring network is supposed to catch spikes in pollutants. But in an effort to safeguard air monitors, the agency typically shuts them down during hurricanes and fails to capture data on the pollution that may be burdening residents.

The TCEQ's analysis states that the delay in monitoring "generates a gap in our knowledge of air quality at a time when emissions may be greatest" because most storm-related emissions occur at the start of an extreme weather event, and because high winds are likely to disperse pollutants.

During Hurricane Harvey, for instance, facilities reported emitting more than 14 million pounds of pollution. By the time the hurricane made landfall on Aug. 25, 2017, TCEQ had shut down its air monitors in Houston and along other parts of the coast. Monitors missed a big chunk of disaster-related emissions. The state’s monitors were also turned off during Hurricane Laura in 2020.

FT: Gas flaring - Can we rein in the waste and pollution?, Sep 21, 2021

Adding Insult to Injury

In a statement released alongside the report last Friday, TCEQ stated that wide-scale deployment of agency staff for air monitoring during factory start-ups related to critical, extreme weather moments was "often unnecessary." They have since retreated from this position, citing difficulties of access that may make it impossible to travel to plant sites, but conceding that air monitoring is "necessary," as reported by the Guardian.

Edna Ibarra, A member of the Laredo Coalition for Clean air at Dec 8 Community Meeting, December 13, 2021.

NBC: How Deregulated Natural Gas Flaring Is Impacting Texas, September 17, 2019.