Dallas’ Office Of Environmental Quality: “You Can’t Handle the Truth” about Pollution

by jim on August 9, 2018

MONDAY, AUGUST 27th

9 AM

ROOM 6ES

DALLAS CITY HALL

CITY COUNCIL QUALITY OF LIFE COMMITTEE HEARING ON DALLAS JOINING A NEW REGIONAL AIR NETWORK

______________________________________________

Over the last two years, as members of the DFW Air Research Consortium have promoted the idea of a dense grid of low-cost, high-tech air sensors spread across North Texas, their audiences have usually had one universal response: “This is great. It’s a no-brainer. When can we start? “

The single exception to this excitement is the City of Dallas Office of Environmental Quality.

Strange isn’t it? That hotbed of radical environmentalism known as Plano is embracing the idea of network air monitoring with both arms. Richardson and Fort Worth are interested as well.

But within Dallas City Hall there’s not only skepticism, but out right hostility to the the “smart city” idea of providing real time air quality information to citizens from hundreds of monitors.

Why?

On more than one occasion OEQ staff has said that they don’t want to have to take calls from Dallas residents who notice high air pollution levels in their neighborhoods and…expressed the opinion that “certain groups won’t responsibly use the information produced…like in Joppa.”

In other words, the public can’t handle the truth. 

(Remind us again what happened in Joppa? 

Oh yeah, Dallas OEQ staff was in favor of putting two additional dusty dirty batch plants in the small Freedman’s community that already has a large and polluting roofing shingles plant, a batch plant, and a huge rail switch yard surrounding it. 

They made their recommendation for two more batch plants without doing any kind of air monitoring at all in Joppa, despite months of residents testifying at various hearings and meetings about the pollution problem and despite OEQ having the equipment to do it. 

Staff made their recommendation without comparing the pollution in Joppa to other Dallas neighborhoods, or without examining any kinds of equity issues at all. Is Joppa the victim of Environmental Racism or not? The OEQ was silent. 

Staff based their support solely on the lack of complaints – a record rendered invalid by plenty of Joppa community meetings where air pollution was complained about –  and the moderate levels of pollution recorded by the single EPA-TCEQ PM monitor in all of Dallas County, located some nine miles away from Joppa near Mockingbird.

When Downwinders showed up a week before the Council vote and actually took air samples in Joppa for the first time, they showed levels of Particulate Matter that were much higher than that EPA monitor, demonstrating how ridiculous it was for OEQ to base its assurance to Joppa residents on it. It made them look like they hadn’t been doing their job. And they hadn’t. And they hadn’t done it in West Dallas with the concrete storage silo and batch plant fights there. Lately, OEQ hasn’t met a polluter it didn’t like.)

So instead of endorsing the idea that the public has as much of a Right-to-Know what’s in their air as in their food, OEQ would just rather you just not know. Ignorance is bliss.

OEQ staffers also have said they object to a network of new air monitors because EPA doesn’t yet recognize their data as “official” and so it can’t be used for enforcement…yet. But do these air monitors have to have that official recognition to begin doing lots of good things for public health?

Joppa residents didn’t need EPA certification to compare the levels Downwinders recorded with the “official monitor” and know something was wrong. Doctors say they don’t need it to begin looking at correlations between area pollution levels and heart attacks, strokes ER visits, and school absenteeism. Cyclists and runners say they don’t need EPA certification to plot the least-polluted routes for exercising according to the grid. Cities like Plano says it doesn’t need it to better time traffic lights and reduce pollution that way.

It’s quite possible just knowing there are new monitors out there relaying real time information will now make a plant manager think twice about doing something questionable on a weekend or holiday.  That’s enforcement – without EPA certification.

Given that Dallas currently doesn’t quantify or measure Environmental Justice issues in the city limits, a monitor network could provide planners and City Council members with a tool to do just that. It could graphically demonstrate how some Dallas neighborhoods are burdened with a lot more air polluters than others, and draw a map of those inequities to prevent them being made worse….to prevent mistakes like the OEQ staff was making in Joppa. You don’t need EPA certification for that impact either.

The hollowness of these staff arguments is proven by OEQ’s own actions. Even while it dismisses the unruly democracy of a real time broad-based PUBLIC monitor network, it’s committing over a million dollars of in-kind staff time and City resources to assisting a PRIVATE air monitoring study that is supposed to show how health can be improved….without EPA certification of the monitors being used.

So the same argument that city staff is using to dismiss the public network is the same one it’s using to support the private study.

You might recognize this M.O. at City Hall:

Staff decides it absolutely must do something about something. It decides how to accomplish that something after an exhaustive and rigorous search of talent and resources within a 100 foot radius of the office where that something is decided. An all out effort is then made to bias, slant, tilt, and otherwise favor the approach staff has decided must be taken against all other alternative approaches that might make sense outside of the 100-foot office radius. Nothing but the original staff approach is worthy of consideration, all others being the work of Satan or Dirty Hippies.

And the City Council? The Deciders for the public-at-large? They have an option to get involved at the very end of this sausage-making. Staff’s view seems to be that bliss is ignorance here too.

This happened with the Trinity River. Now it’s happening with air quality.

In 2014 Dallas got some Rockefeller Foundation money for Resilience preparation. For those without a program, resilience is the fancy Rockefeller Foundation word for Climate Change, or rather the symptoms of climate change. Elected officials and bureaucrats are supposed to feel safer about using it.

Dallas got so much money that the City created an Office of Resiliency. And that office sponsored invitation-only forums on how Dallas could be more resilient. Not open forums mind you. Not public hearings. They wanted the folks they’d located through that rigorous and exhaustive vetting process. None of the Satanists or Dirty Hippies got notice.

One of the right kind of groups that did get invited to those forums was the Texas Nature Conservancy, a mostly wealthy and white group of landowners dedicated to the noble idea of putting aside large tracts of undeveloped land for permanent preservation. It’s a group well-known for its dedication to open spaces – but not for any research it’s ever done on air quality.

Nevertheless, out of these forums suddenly emerged a partnership between the City of Dallas and The Nature Conservancy to do some kind of new air quality monitoring. There was no competition of concepts and no decision by the City Council. Staff had decided, and that was that.

And so you get the “Breathe Easy” Study.

Nine (as yet unspecified) DISD schools in “South Dallas” will be wired with new air monitors recording Ozone and Particulate Matter pollution in real time over one or two years to study the impact of anti-pollution measures like stricter idling policies on school absenteeism rates.

But while the information will be gathered in real time from these nine schools, that information will not be shared with the public on the City of Dallas website until after (an as yet unspecified) time has passed. No annoying calls from pesky citizens (or parents) asking why their neighborhood’s air pollution levels are so high today.

Furthermore, after the study is completed it’s unclear what’s going to happen to the monitors in the nine schools.

In this case, the Conservancy and City seem to be tracking the “resiliency” of Dallas students in the face of chronic and acute air pollution problems, and then letting them know after the fact how resilient they were.

And is it irony, cynicism, or both when Dallas City Hall says this new study is needed because “Black kids in Dallas have an asthma rate eight times higher than Asian children and four times higher than whites.”

Maybe that’s because the Dallas OEQ keeps approving batch plants in their neighborhoods.

The same department which approved the relocation of the Argos batch plant from gentrified Trinity Groves to working class West Dallas, approved Buzzi’s 165-foot tall concrete silo next door, approved the RamCrete batch plant permit down the street, and whole-heartedly approved two new batch plant permits in Joppa IS NOW concerned about Environmental Justice issues! What amazing powers that Rockefeller money has.

So far, TNC reports they’ve received almost $280,000 in grant money for support of this study. Paperwork found as part of a Texas Open Records Act Request Downwinders submitted to City Hall suggest the City is donating a million dollars in data services capacity alone. That’s in addition to the considerable staff time also lent to the effort. In-kind donations from DISD have not been disclosed.

We know that reducing kids’ exposure to PM pollution will help their health and well-being. We know one way to do that is by turning off vehicle exhaust. It’s not clear what kind of return the TNC or City is getting for its considerable investment.

Meanwhile,  the idea of a new network of low-cost, high-tech monitors throughout North Texas giving the public real time information about the state of the air its breathing actually sounds like a great Rockefeller resiliency grant because it helps individuals and localities deal with the symptoms of climate change in their daily lives.

Moreover it’s an indigenous, grassroots effort.

Because the rigorous and exhaustive vetting at City Hall didn’t make it the long 17 miles up to UTD, staff had no idea that one of the nation’s premiere experts in air monitoring teaches there. Oxford-trained Dr. David Lary just got a huge contract from the U.S. armed forces to help them better equip our soldiers for fighting in hostile and toxic urban environments. A big selling point was all the different air toxins in DFW standing in for the real thing. Honest.

It was Dr. Lary’s 2016 National Science Foundation proposal for a pilot project that got the regional network ball rolling. Even though it didn’t get funded, it brought together local governments, scientists, and citizens groups who then forged their own regional slow-cook version. Representatives from UNT, UTA, TCU, and UNT’s Health Science Center participated. So did Plano, and Dallas County.

Dr. Lary has outlined a monitoring network that’s capable of correcting itself in real time using those EPA official monitors as a baseline. EPA has said they’re interested in using his approach. So has NASA. He’s the foremost authority on this topic within hundreds and hundreds of miles but somehow, but Dallas city staff never found him because he wasn’t on that exclusive invite list.

The TNC-Dallas Breathe Easy study is using the Texas A&M Transportation Institute for their air monitoring expertise. Much like the Nature Conservancy, this is a fine outfit, well-known for its work in transportation policy. It is not known for any air quality monitoring work and one can look in vain on its website for a mention of such. No one on their faculty even comes close to matching Dr. Lary’s credentials.

The kicker is that for the same $280,000 as Breathe Easy has raised, Dr. Lary has said he and his lab could build  200 + monitors for regional distribution. Data services will be donated by UTD. You get about 190 more monitors and real time public access for the same money.

So on the one hand you have an expensive study run by a private foundation for a short time using untested expertise, and on the other you have a cost-effective perpetual public network advised by one of the country’s leading authorities on air monitoring. You don’t have to have lived in Dallas very long to know which choice was the “no-brainer” for staff.

The Private Study and the Public Network don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but that’s the way City staff often portrays the choices to the Council – whose first exposure to any of this material will be at the scheduled August 27th Quality of Life Committee public hearing on joining the Regional Network, chaired by Council Member Sandy Greyson.

The Conservancy study could be done parallel to the establishment of the network and its school monitors folded into it at the end of the planned two-year shelf life. The city could help the Conservancy and be a part of the Network at the same time. But Staff seems to have made up their minds they can only support one air monitoring project, or rather, dug in their heels over the overly-democratic goals of this network project – it being supported by the Satanists and Dirty Hippies and all.

There’s no doubt that the same changes in technology which have disrupted other industries are disrupting environmental monitoring too. The ability to buy very reliable monitors for not much money is sending control away from top-down hierarchies to the bottom-up, crowd-sourcing rabble. A few expensive sites are being replaced by hundreds of inexpensive ones. Homeowners are already buying and installing their own consumer versions and linking to national and international networks. They’re making the status quo obsolete, one monitor at a time.

The regional network proposed by Dr. Lary and the DFW Air Research Consortium is designed to try to harness this disruption for public health’s sake.  It’s open source, accepting all comers that meet its technical guidelines for participation, utilizes machine learning, and dispenses monitors where the science and need lead, no matter how many. It’s the same thing being done in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, and Chattanooga. And even Plano, which has already ordered its first monitors from UTD.

Plano has decided it wants a seat at the table as the sensor networks of the future are built. It’s participating out of self-interest because it knows otherwise, the city might not have a say in how the technology is used there. It’s the polar opposite from the sentiments Dallas OEQ staffers have expressed.

On the 27th, Council Member Greyson will be using her Committee hearing to contrast and compare the two air monitoring projects.

City staff will do one presentation on the Breathe Easy study and UTD’s Dr. Lary and Downwinders Director Jim Schermbeck will do another on the regional monitor network.

Then it will up to the Committee to decide if Dallas can be as progressive on air quality as Plano.

We’re told there will be no public comment allowed. Still, we encourage you to come down to City Hall, put on a button, buy some popcorn, and root for Democracy. The Dirty Hippies are on a roll of late.

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