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Oil refineries and chemical plants along Texas’s Gulf Coast shut down their industrial facilities in advance of hurricanes or other storms. This is to protect workers and prevent spillages. However, this can lead to more pollution than is permitted or necessary. As plants burn off the waste gases from the storms, they can cause even more pollution, including health pollutants and climate-warming greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also shuts off its air monitoring equipment in order to protect sensitive devices from damage during storms. This prevents it from missing times when pollution is highest.
The Friday TCEQ report stated that this happens before the TCEQ is able mobilize handheld and mobile monitoring, and often when station monitors are offline because of the storm. “This creates a gap between our knowledge and emissions at a time when they may be greatest.”
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Local officials rely on TCEQ air monitoring to help make decisions about when the public should shelter, in order to avoid dangerous levels. Harris County officials have turned to outside assistance for air monitoring when the state’s monitors failed, a lesson they said they learned during the 2019 Intercontinental Terminals Company Fire. The Environmental Defense Fund provided a $1.1 million grant that helped Houston and the county purchase equipment and plan their own air monitoring. Houston Chronicle Report.
Friday’s TCEQ Report sought to analyze air samples from industrial accidents and natural catastrophes and compare them to the TCEQ. Limitations on potential environmental and health effects.
However, the analysis found that the worst pollution is usually emitted in the first few days following a storm. This is when the state cannot monitor. This means that TCEQ could only partially analyze how often pollutants were potentially harmful to the environment or public health.
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The TCEQ’s toxicology, compliance, and legal departments authored the report. They concluded that although there isn’t any monitoring data, hurricanes can quickly disperse potentially dangerous levels from industrial facilities. However, the report didn’t provide any data about whether these high winds occur simultaneously with plants polluting as a result of weather-related problems or pre-storm shut downs.
A spokesperson for the TCEQ Gary Rasp stated that The Environmental Protection Agency has cited previous studiesStudies have shown that pollutants are more easily diluted if they are moved at a higher speed.
According to the report, Hurricane Harvey saw a dramatic difference in monitoring data.
The slow-moving hurricane, which caused widespread flooding and killed dozens and caused more that $100 billion in property loss, struck on Aug. 25, 2017. TCEQ had ceased its stationary air monitoring to prevent it from becoming a catastrophe. The Houston plants that were shut down began to shut down a day later, on Aug. 26, 2017, and startups started Aug. 29. The state didn’t begin monitoring the Houston area again until September 6, 2017.
According to a graph included in the report, the majority of self-reported plant disruptions – equipment breakdowns, accidents, and unavoidable shut downs – occurred prior to February 17th. Mobile air monitoring did not resume its normal numbers until February 19, after the majority of the plant malfunctions, plant upsets and emergency shutdowns.
One graph in the report shows how monitoring plummeted after the winter storm: Air samples taken by the state dropped from nearly 16,000 samples per hour prior to the storm to less than 1,000 samples on February 17. Levels of sampling were recovered around February 19.
According to the facilities’ self-reported emissions events, plant upsets increased dramatically during the gap in sampling.
TCEQ monitored the air for six weeks to determine the impact of shutdowns and rolling starts of plants. The state then conducted an analysis. The agency maintains an Network of more than 200 stationary monitorsTexas
The report includes an analysis of industrial accidents, including the Intercontinental Terminals Company fire that occurred in Harris County in March 2019, and the Texas Petrochemical Group fires in Port Neches on November 2019According to research, such fires can cause much more pollution than storms. Residents were forced to evacuate or shelter in Port Neches after the explosion at their chemical tank farm in Deer Park. After a leak at a Deer Park chemical tank farm, a massive chemical fire erupted at the ITC facility in 2019. Residents were forced to evacuate and a plume loomed over Houston for days.
The ITC Fire, which caused approximately 16.5 million metric tons of pollution in Harris County, is the most polluting industrial accident or natural disaster that the TCEQ has analyzed. Next came Hurricane Harvey which caused 14.2 millions pounds in the Beaumont, Houston, and Corpus Christi areas.
According to the state’s analysis, air monitoring after the ITC fire showed that at least two days of benzene levels exceeded the TCEQ level for possible health effects.
TCEQ monitors storms for several days, or even weeks. However, the report found that there are very few health risks to the public during this time. The majority of pollution – and risk – is immediately after and during storms.
While polluting facilities can increase, restarting them can cause pollution to rise. However, plants often restart at different times so there are less air quality concerns than if they were all restarted simultaneously.
In a Friday press releaseThe agency stated that the report’s key finding was that there were few health risks identified within weeks of a storm passing. This means that the state agency doesn’t necessarily have to monitor air quality as long as it did in the past. The press release stated that it is not necessary to deploy large numbers of personnel from the agency to monitor air quality for prolonged periods after a storm.
Toby Baker, executive director of TCEQ, stated in a statement that while each event is different and TCEQ will respond accordingly to those conditions, the data compiled in the analysis would be useful in deploying resources better. “We will be able provide more efficient monitoring without taking away resources from our mission-critical activities across state,” Baker said.
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