EPA Audit: Monitoring of Hurricane Harvey Air Pollution Insufficient

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Hurricane Harvey cost more than $125 billion in damages and filled more than 80,000 homes with at least 18 inches of water. But monitoring efforts failed to fully assess the effect of hundreds of tons of hazardous air pollutants industrial facilities released during the natural disaster, a federal watchdog reported Monday. 

In an audit of the Environmental Protection Agency, its Office of Inspector General concluded that air monitoring efforts during and in the aftermath of the hurricane that pummeled the Texas coast in August 2017 were not rapid enough and did not generate data sufficient to assess the potential effects on human health. 

Smoke rises from the Arkema Inc.-owned chemical plant in Crosby, near Houston, Texas, on Sept. 1, 2017. (KTRK via AP, File)

Most of the hurricane-related emissions occurred within five days of the storm’s landfall as oil refineries and other industrial facilities shut down, malfunctioned and restarted. Companies in the Houston area reported more than 319 tons of toxic emissions in the storm’s wake. And more than half of the known emissions occurred when there were no air monitors. 

Most of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) monitors in the Houston area were turned off to save them from storm damage and remained off for several days, according to the audit, and many of the emissions occurred before temporary monitoring began. 

“Overall, the EPA’s lack of monitoring guidance and various technological limitations prevented nongovernmental organizations, local governmental entities and the EPA itself from monitoring air quality during the peak period of excess emissions due to Hurricane Harvey,” the audit states. 

The inspector general advised the agency to “better plan” future emergency response efforts in coordination with NGOs and local government offices.

“During the Hurricane Harvey response, high-risk areas were predominantly located adjacent to or near large industrial facilities,” the audit states. “Increased planning and coordination could provide these communities with timely information about their air quality during an emergency, enabling them to take precautions to reduce their exposure to air toxics.” 

While the watchdog did not find any instances in which the EPA communicated inaccurate information to the public about air pollution after the storm, it did determine that public communication was limited, due to a lack of guidance about how to share air quality data and address concerns from affected communities. 

“These challenges led to limited public awareness of potential air quality issues, which in turn could reduce public trust and confidence in the government’s actions in response to an emergency. Given the number of impacts of the hurricane – including flooding, loss of power and the fear naturally instigated by a natural disaster – unaddressed concerns regarding air quality likely compounded the public perception of risks,” the audit states.

In its response to a draft report of the audit, EPA Assistant Administrator Peter Wright said the agency does not agree with the idea of developing “overarching monitoring guidance for emergency responses – beyond what already exists,” and pointed out that state and local governments are responsible for leading their emergency response efforts and the agency supports those efforts if federal assistance is requested. 

“Air monitoring during a response is individualized and highly dependent upon the unique characteristics of the incident,” the agency explained. 

The agency concurred with just two of the inspector general’s recommendations, agreeing to update its “Crisis Communications Plan” to include a process to update communities about the resolution of their concerns, and to conduct environmental justice training for community liaisons. 

The OIG reported some difficulty in getting information for its report from the TCEQ, the primary governmental entity responsible for leading the emergency response efforts. 

In a letter Monday to Charles Sheehan, the acting inspector general, TCEQ Chairman Jon Niermann said the commission would use the report “as a tool” to improve its disaster response services, but he added that, contrary to the report, emergency air monitoring efforts followed “detailed plans” communicated among state and federal agencies. 

Niermann also pushed back on the report’s description of the commission’s interactions with the watchdog.

“We were working in good faith to set up meetings or calls and provide the information your office had requested. Those efforts appeared to have stalled when unrelated events required the attention of our staff. Whatever the reason, I am sorry the conversation was not resumed,” Niermann wrote. 

“This is particularly unfortunate because the report evidences numerous misunderstandings about the Hurricane Harvey response and disaster response in Texas generally,” Niermann added. “For example, other than limited references to air monitoring data TCEQ collected by helicopter flyovers and its stationary air monitors, there is no mention of the extensive air quality monitoring and analysis that TCEQ conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.”

According to a Los Angeles Times report published earlier this year, NASA scientists ready to fly a plane over the hurricane-ravaged area to monitor pollution levels were turned away by the TCEQ and the EPA, which were reportedly concerned about “confusion” and “overlap” with their own analysis. 

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