EPA Blocks NASA from Monitoring Air Pollution Levels in Houston After Hurricane Harvey

Published Mar 11, 2019

The EPA and Texas authorities stopped NASA scientists from sampling air pollution data after Hurricane Harvey.

What happened: After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas in August 2017, numerous chemical spills, fires, and damage to industrial plants had occurred. Worried about reports from Houston residents that suggested air pollutants were leading to severe health problems, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists prepared to fly an airplane equipped with the world’s most sophisticated air samplers over the hurricane zone to monitor air pollution levels. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Texas authorities stopped the NASA scientists from doing so, arguing that the air pollution data collection would cause “confusion” and might “overlap” with their own analysis.

Why it matters: Data collection by our government is essential to inform policymakers, scientists, and the general public of possible risks to public health during natural disasters. Denying scientists from collecting data on air pollutants because it may cause “confusion” stops scientists from obtaining data that could form the basis of evidence-based solutions and policies that protect the health and safety of the public.

Collection of scientific data has once again been hindered by the Trump administration. The Los Angeles Times obtained emails showing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Texas officials had blocked an effort by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists to measure air pollution levels using NASA’s DC-8 airplane, which is considered to be the world’s most sophisticated method to measure air pollution, in Houston after Hurricane Harvey hit the region. After learning about reports of toxic clouds of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants in Houston in the days following the storm, NASA officials and scientists worked hard to coordinate efforts to schedule the DC-8 airplane to fly over Houston, even foregoing an already planned test flight to aid the hurricane recovery efforts. However, Dr. Michael Honeycutt – at the time the director of the Toxicology Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – wrote to NASA to reject their proposal, saying that “At this time, we don’t think your data would be useful.” EPA’s deputy regional administrator in Texas, David Gray, deferred to Honeycutt’s judgement: “EPA concurs with your [Honeycutt’s] assessment and we will not plan to ask NASA to conduct this mission.”

In the email exchange, EPA and Texas officials were concerned that NASA’s efforts to fly the plane and collect data would prove to be detrimental. Initially, Gray said that he was “hesitant” to have the airplane “collect additional information that overlaps our existing efforts” until he learned more about the mission. Gray also noted that media and nongovernmental organizations were releasing data that was “conflicting” with the state and EPA’s data. NASA scientists responded with several points of clarification: that NASA scientists would not hinder the EPA and Texas’ data collection efforts; that NASA’s data would not focus on particular facility emissions but would assess whether large changes in air quality had occurred following the disaster; NASA scientists promised not to deliver their data to the media, though they noted the data would eventually become public; and that similar interagency efforts had succeeded in the past. NASA scientists pointed out that in 2010 a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plane with a similar set of air pollution monitoring equipment and assisted by NASA scientists had aided the EPA in assessing the air quality over the Deepwater Horizon spill; the data had showed that the air was safe to breathe, thereby assuaging the concerns of rescue operators and emergency responders in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite this, Honeycutt concluded that “we don’t think your data would be useful for source identification while industry continues to restart their operations.” The EPA agreed with this, deferring to Honeycutt’s assessment.

NASA scientists were shocked by the exchange. The chief scientist of NASA’s Earth Science Division wrote to the team project coordinator that “NASA does NOT need EPA approval. We certainly should notify and potentially coordinate, but we don’t need approval.” NASA officials disagreed and called off the plane flight. The director of NASA’s Earth Sciences division wrote to the scientists saying that NASA had “received emails from both TCEQ and EPA stating unambiguously that they do not want NASA to use the DC-8 for any data acquisition,” adding that “I am personally sorry.”

It is important to note that there may be a conflict of interest in this ordeal. Dr. Michael Honeycutt is a toxicologist well known for cherry-picking EPA studies to cast doubt on the health risks associated with ozone pollution and arguing that the EPA has overstated the health concerns of chemicals like mercury, formaldehyde, and arsenic. Honeycutt was appointed as chair of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board just six weeks after he blocked NASA from collecting air pollution data in Houston.

The Houston air pollution data previously collected by the EPA and the state of Texas was based on ground measurements (mobile bus units and crews with hand-held devices) and a single-prop plane which takes photos, uses infrared technology to detect chemical plumes, and can gather some basic chemistry from about 24 species of air-pollutant compounds. This data showed only a few, isolated spots of concern. However, NASA scientists say that the DC-8 airplane would have provided an even more comprehensive and detailed analysis of air quality in the region, thereby leading to a more thorough understanding of the situation. NASA’s DC-8 airplane is a flying research laboratory that is considered to be the most precise and comprehensive airborne air quality laboratory on the planet. The quality and comprehensiveness of data received by the DC-8 is staggering – it can collect air pollutant data from altitudes ranging from 40,000 feet to 500 feet and it can analyze over 400 gases.

Collection of scientific data is important when natural disasters strike because the data can be used to identify areas of increased risk to health and safety, and can act as the basis for disaster management and recovery policies. This was especially true during Hurricane Harvey as the floodwaters caused a number of chemical spills in Houston and surrounding areas. Accidental releases of chemicals at facilities owned by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and others were occurring. Explosions took place at Arkema’s Crosby facility, 20 miles northeast of Houston, due to power failures and flooding. Superfund sites were flooded and spilling hazardous waste into open rivers and streams. Valero’s chemical plant had released a cloud of carcinogenic benzene into the air that prompted Houston residents to call a city hotline to report on the disturbing gas odors. Some of these disasters occurred in disenfranchised communities that were already burdened with disproportionate levels of chemical exposures.

Science requires the collection of data. This is especially true during natural disasters when scientists attempt to determine whether or not the disaster caused damaging events to take place in communities. The EPA and Texas authorities halted an opportunity to collect data even when NASA was ready and willing to carry it out with one of the world’s best methods to measure air pollution. The unwillingness of EPA and Texas officials to allow data collection that may have conflicted with their previous assessment that pollution levels were “well below levels of health concern” demonstrates political interference in government science. EPA leadership must do better to support scientific data collection to protect public health.