Only in the nonsensical world of EPA air quality regulation could the official regional average for DFW smog actually decrease despite the worst levels of DFW Ozone pollution in five years.

In 2018 a quarter of all North Texas official monitor sites recorded smog levels in the 90-95 ppb range for more than an hour.  2018 was the first time in two years that any DFW monitors have had 8-hour averages of 80 ppb or above, and the first time since 2013 since there been at least six. In fact, this year’s total number of 80-or-above monitors is almost equal to the total number from the last five years combined.

Nevertheless, the regional average for smog pollution that determines government action actually went down from 81 to 76 parts per billion.

How does that happen? Not without a lot of numerical manipulation. EPA’s formula for smog pollution classification  is a two part affair. First EPA only counts the highest 4th highest annual reading from each monitor in DFW. That means every monitor gets three “Mulligans” or “do-overs” before the results are eligible for regulatory use. Then EPA combines the last three year’s worth of those highest 4th highest readings to produce a rolling average. So that 2018 average is actually the results of the highest 4th highest reading from 2016, 2017, and 2018.

High readings from the summer of 2015 are rolling out of that three-year rolling average, while lower readings in ’16 and ’17 remain. While this year’s smog levels were higher, but not so extraordinarily high as to be able to counter the lower numbers making up the rest of the average.

But our smog was bad enough last year and this to once again make sure DFW is in “non-attainment” of the clean Air Act for the pollutant. For the umpteenth time in a row, we missed a deadline for meeting a Clean Air Act smog standard – this time it’s the 2008 75 ppb standard. If EPA follows its own protocol, that means DFW will be go from being “moderately” out of compliance to being in “Serious” non-compliance.

And please remember all of these numbers are based on only 20 smog monitors, half of which are located well-outside the DFW urban core, and none of which are located in Wise County, where Downwinders is doing the job of monitoring ozone pollution that the State and EPA refuse to do.

What are the consequences of this continuing violation of the Clean Air Act that imperils public health? Nada probably. At least while the Trump Administration holds office. In the past such classifications would have triggered a process leading up to some kind of official plan of action that, at least rhetorically, is aimed at correcting the 30-year old problem. But no one expects the State of Texas, or now the EPA, to take that responsibility seriously.

What you can expect is some official TCEQ spin about how it’s been successful in bringing down smog pollution levels. In fact, it was the wettest September on record that brought an abrupt end to what was shaping up to be an even worse smog year than it already was at the end of August. Historically, September is when DFW sees some of its worst bad air days. But not this year.

Accompanying the rise in smog pollution in 2018 was also a dramatic rise in the regional numbers for Particulate Matter (PM) pollution – the highest North Texas has seen since 2003.

After a long spell of annual peaks of between 24 and 28 migrograms per cubic meter of air, the 2018 average for highest daily readings among all sites has risen dramatically as of this month – to almost 40 µg/m3

Before this year, they’d only been four daily peaks above 40 µg/m3 over the last 15 years. In 2018  four out of 6 PM monitoring sties had registered daily readings averaging between 41 an 43 ppb as of October.

The EPA annual standard for PM pollution is 12 µg/m3. The 24 hour standard is 35 µg/m3.

As with smog, these readings are coming from a very small pool of monitors – in this case just six PM monitors scattered over an area only slightly smaller than Rhode Island.

Some of this might be blamed on the drought we we experiencing during the summer and increased dust circulation, but comparing it to 2011 when similar if not worse conditions were in play shows no similar bump then. Fewer coal plants blowing their plumes into DFW this year might lead you to think we were even due for a drop. Instead it’s as if someone turned the key on a couple more.  There’s no obvious reason why PM levels would have jumped so much in a single year.

What’s clear is that local governments are the last refuge for effective and new air pollution control measures. Until political leadership changes in Austin and/or Washington, there’s no expectation of any relief. In fact, every day sees new proposals from the State or EPA that will actually increase smog and PM pollution in DFW. This is why local city and county elections are just as important as state and national ones.

We’ll have to wait until the end of 2019 to see if this rise in pollution averages is a trend or blip, but there’s no question that smog and PM are taking their toll on public health in DFW. Study after study shows harms at levels of exposure well below these annual and daily averages that determine EPA regulations. In the real world, your lungs, heart, brain and immune system don’t seem to be able to distinguish between “safe” and “unsafe” levels of poison as defined by the government.

After a few technological hiccups, the state’s first permanent smog monitor built and operated by a citizens’ group is up and running in rural Southeast Wise County. And by the looks of this summer’s ozone season, just in the nick of time.

Conceived, designed, and supervised entirely by environmental scientist and UNT doctoral candidate Kari Northeim on behalf of Downwinders, the Atlas Monitoring Station is a first-of-its-kind adaptation of smaller, less expensive technology to perform the job of monitors many times its size and cost. It instantly becomes a huge milestone in our efforts to build a better system of air quality monitoring in North Texas.

The Atlas Station is a product of Downwinders’ Wise County Ozone Project, financed by a grant from Patagonia and an EarthTank prize won by Downwinders at EarthDay Texas in 2016. It’s objective is to collect continuous readings of Ozone, otherwise known as smog, in Wise County –  until this week the only one of ten DFW “non-attainment” counties with no ozone monitors. 

Besides being downwind of much of DFW’s smog, Wise County is the birthplace of modern “fracking” and blistered with gas patch facilities that produce significant amounts of smog-causing air pollution. However, the nearest official smog monitors are approximately 30 miles to the east in Denton County and 20 miles south in Tarrant County. Despite past state and private computer modeling predicting smog to be worse in Wise County than the rest of North Texas when “ozone season” winds are out of the south-southeast, there’s been no monitor there to test that hypothesis. Until now. 

Accurate regional ozone readings are important to DFW because they determine how much in or out of compliance with the Clean Air Act we are. If smog levels being recorded by EPA monitors in their current locations aren’t reflective of higher smog levels actually being breathed in North Texas, then we need to know that and add more protective air pollution measures.

Last spring Downwinders bought two portable smog monitors the size of cable boxes from Colorado’s 2B Technologies at $5000 each. That’s a huge drop in price and size. Traditional EPA monitors doing the same job can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take up a quarter acre.

2B factory-calibrates the monitors and they’re already certified by EPA, but from from June 2017 to March 2018, they were subject to additional testing by Kari at the University of North Texas (UNT) Engineering Lab.

Although small, these are incredibly reliable machines with an accuracy of greater than 1.5 parts per billion by volume, or 2% of the total reading. They measure ozone every ten seconds and can automatically average over a minute, 10 minute, or hour interval (like the state monitors do so we can compare apples to apples).

Small, portable, cheaper, but the monitors still need electricity. In order to have more siting options in a mostly rural county, the Atlas uses a 100 W solar panel to connect the monitors to the juice they need to take readings. Batteries provide back-up. This makes is a completely stand alone, self-sufficient monitoring station that we can put anywhere with a good south view.

Air is collected through a funnel and shuttled down a pipe that brings it into a weather-protected box where the monitor itself sits. 

During the Wise County Ozone Project, one monitor at a time will be deployed for a period of 3-6 months. Unfortunately, there’s not a way yet to get real time access to the monitor via the internet, so instead data will be downloaded by Kari every month and compared to readings at those Denton and Tarrant County monitors. Not perfect, but better than no monitor at all.

According to Northeim, who expects to be able to mine several scientific papers with the data she collects, “This research is critically important to develop an understanding of the true ozone exposure in Wise County. It’s very exciting.” 

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Putting a Smog Monitor

 

Where No Smog Monitor Has Gone Before

EPA has 20 ozone, or smog, monitors in North Texas. Approximately half of those are considered “background” monitors on the edge of the denser urban areas. Originally the DFW “non-attainment area” for smog was only Dallas and Tarrant Counties. As the area’s populations grew, so did its air pollution problem and Denton, and Collin Counties were added, then Johnson, Parker, Rockwall, and Kaufman. Citizens petitioned and sued to bring Ellis And Wise Counties into the fold. All of these counties except Wise have an EPA smog monitor, despite Wise County being included in the non-attainment area since 2012, and despite state and private computer air modeling showing the County could have some of the region’s worst smog.

 

Downwinders’ Wise County Ozone Project Gets A Director

Downwinders at Risk is proud to announce Kari Northeim, a doctoral student in Environmental Sciences at the University of North Texas, has agreed to become our Wise County Ozone Project Director.

Kari brings an impressive resume and a rigorous level of scientific methodology to the use of our two new EPA-calibrated portable ozone monitors we purchased earlier this year.

She has an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Iowa State, has two more years at San Francisco State studying Meteorology, including climate change modeling and global warming research. Still not satisfied, she went and got a Business degree at Syracuse, worked in the private sector for 16 years, went back to teach High School science, and is now pursuing a PhD. in Environmental Science – Biological Sciences with an emphasis on Health Geographical Information Systems. Did we mention Kari has an impressive resume?

But it’s more than accumulated degrees. Kari’s father and all of her siblings are engineers, while her mom is a math teacher. Number crunching is in her blood. And she wants to use those mad skills to help the environment and people. So instead of making small fortunes for Wall Street firms or multinationals, she’s helping non-profits do original research in smog pollution.

How did we find her? She found us. Following her UNT adviser’s advice to catch the presentations on 21st Century air quality monitoring featured in Downwinders’ series of Evenings of Science and Socializing last June, she drove down to Fort Worth, saw the show, and stayed to talk. It’s a great outreach event when it snags this kind of talent (and courtesy of the Ft. Worth League of Neighborhoods, you have a chance to see a repeat of that Cowtown performance September 7th – see the notice below).

Believed to be the largest, or at least most ambitious citizen-science project in North Texas, Downwinders’ Wise County Ozone Project is going where no state or federal monitoring for smog has gone before: into the only DFW “non-attainment” county without an ozone monitor.

Wise County is where fracking was born and the gas industry still dominates many parts of it. It’s also where a lot of everyone else’s smog accumulates. Predominant southeast winds push it from the Gulf Coast all the way to Midlothian, through the metro DFW area, and into Wise County. 

Based on past computer modeling by the State itself, ozone levels are often predicted to be higher in Wise County than any other 10 DFW non-attainment counties –  but there’s still no State monitors there.

That gap in local public health information is intentional and it’s that gap the Wise County Ozone Project is filling. 

Northeim is already drafting plans on how best to put the monitors to the test in the field. She wants us to have the ability to use them as stationary monitoring sites, as well as be able to take them with us on the road. It’s a complex and long-term mission that Northheim says she relishes. And she’ll be putting out the “Help Wanted” sign soon as she recruits other citizen scientists and volunteers to help, so stay tuned. You too can become a citizen scientist for the public interest.  

Finding Kari was a real coup. But from its founding, Downwinders has had a long and distinguished history of working with great scientists and using sound science to advance the cause of cleaner air.

Dr. Marvin Legator’s 1996 report on the State’s toxicity classification system eventually led to some changes in Austin.  Dr. Stuart Batterman did a landmark public health critique of the TXI hazardous waste burning permit in the late 1990’s. Dr. Al Armendarez, an engineering professor at SMU when he started out as Downwinder’s technical adviser, left in 2009 to become the first engineer ever to be appointed as Regional Administrator for EPA. In 2015, Dr. Kuruvilla John of UNT’s Physics Department used that school’s supercomputers to reproduce the state’s air modeling for DFW outside of Austin for the first time so elected officials could see what impact new pollution controls would have.

Soon-to-be Dr. Kari Northeim is the latest effort by Downwinders to develop local DFW expertise to help solve DFW air pollution problems. Please join us in welcoming her to the cause and consider signing-on to what is sure to be another historic challenge to the Status Quo.

Downwinders’s “Evenings of Science and Socializing”
Concludes with SRO Crowd in Denton 
 

We’re pretty sure it was the first time Cambridge-trained UTD Physicist Dr. David Lary had presented in a bar.

The occasion was opening night of Downwinders’ “Evenings of Science and Socializing” at Bryan Street Tavern, in a dark back room that came complete with fog machine, disco ball, and a too-close juke box.

But Dr. Lary is nothing if not persistent. He’s applied for one grant after another in trying to fund his dream of a regional grid of hundreds or thousands of air monitoring sensors. He was told not to even bother applying for a prestigious National Science Foundation grant. That would be the same grant  he and his consortium of colleges, cities, and citizens groups are now in the running for. That kind of persistence is why he’s an honorary Downwinder. 

And so, like the trooper he is, Dr. Lary pushed through all the distractions and pitched his plan to an audience of about a dozen and half, including wayward bar patrons who stumbled onto the exhibit and stuffed $5 dollar bills into the donation jar.

Four nights later it was Dr. David Sterling of the UNT Health Science Center explaining how his school’s partnering with the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods gave birth to the design of the portal used by the public to access the monitoring information. His talk drew about two dozen citizens to the Ginger Man pub, including many that had been directly involved in the focus groups he had sponsored over the past five years.

And two nights after that, Dr. Lary and UNTHSC Environmental Health doctoral candidate Leslie Allsop showed up at the Greenhouse in Denton with a Standing Room Only crowd of at least 40-50 folks, plus a few latecomers who were turned away.

Some of the audience questions were the same at every meeting. How much do the sensors cost? How do we get one or more of them? Some were particular to the location or audience being addressed, like why is Denton always the “worst-performing monitor” in North Texas? Answer: location, location, location.

All of these meetings were the first time the general public had been invited to look at the technology and plans of the DFW Air Research Consortium, (DFW ARC) the less-than-year old group that’s gaining momentum in its quest to use high tech solutions to decades-old problems. Downwinders has been instrumental in establishing and administering the group. It includes the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, the School Districts of those cities plus Richardson and the Dallas County Community College system, TCU, UTA, UNT and UTD, plus Livable Arlington and Mansfield Gas Well Awareness.

News of the National Science  Foundation grant the Consortium  applied for should be coming any day now. Considering the competition, it would be quite incredible if the Consortium won. It would generate much needed publicity and increase our chances for getting other grants. But regardless, the work that went into the NSF grant has produced a template for the Consortium to apply to other foundations and individuals to grow the same regional grid of sensors. The work won’t stop if the NSF money doesn’t come through.

Proof of that are two on-going projects of the Consortium and its members that are already up and running.

The “10-Schools” project at UTD is one where a select number of schools across the Metromess will be paired with Particulate Matter and Ozone monitors in the first attempt to sketch out the frame of a regional grid system. Selection of the schools is being weighed right now. At every meeting there was a suggestion from citizens for this or that school that should be included based on its proximity to a large pollution source, or high absentee rates. It will be tough to narrow all those suggestions down to ten.

In the Fall, the project will be distributing the monitors, being assembled now at Dr. Lary’s lab at UTD. They’ll come with a video camera, a micro meteorology unit, and the pollution sensors themselves. Students will be able to use the monitors as a tool in classes. Neighborhoods will be able to use the information to better protect themselves. It will be the beginning of building a regional grid that identifies and tracks air pollution much better than the state or EPA does now. 

Then there’s Downwinder’s own “Wise County Ozone Project,” that will use the two brand new portable ozone monitors we just bought to begin recording smog levels in the one and only county in the “DFW Non-Attainment Area” that doesn’t have any.  We have at least one location secured for a stationary monitor, but we need some additional assistance. To pull this off, we need:

 Carpenters that can help us assemble a couple of 12-13 foot wooden platforms that will house the monitors.

Solar expertise and panels to help power the monitors.

Electrical Engineers that can help us hard wire the monitors to those panels and back-up batteries.

IT experts who can help us with connectivity issues.

If you or someone you know could be of help in any of these categories, please write us at Info@downwindersatrisk@gmail.com or call us at 469-608-1972. 

What these two projects prove is the technology featured in all three of our recent events is here now and being used. We don’t have to wait. We just have to organize ourselves to make effective use of it.  Help us do that. With your expertise if you have it.  With your time if you can spare any. With a contribution if you can.

There are many things you may feel powerless to change right now but this is a “bricks and mortar” change on the ground that can take place over the next few years and promises to deliver a challenge to both Austin and DC. Become a part of it.

Thanks to Dr. Lary, Dr. Sterling and Ms. Allsop for donating their time and taking on the challenge of bringing science to the public..and pubs. Thanks to our co-sponsors: The Dallas Innovation Alliance, the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods, and the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. And thanks to everyone who showed up and made these events more useful to citizens. Onward thru the Smog.

On the eve of Earth Day, clean air group Downwinders at Risk announced the purchase of two portable, EPA-calibrated ozone monitors to initiate a citizen-based monitoring campaign in Wise County this summer, where state officials refuse to measure DFW smog.

“With the purchase of these brand new high-tech monitors, which reached the market only a few months ago, we become the first group in Texas to have the capability to go out in the field and do the job the State of Texas isn’t willing to do,” said Downwinders Chair Tamera Bounds.

Downwinders newest technology will be on display at this weekend’s Earth Day Texas at Fair Park, where it’ll be a featured part of the group’s information booth.  Each monitor cost approximately $5,000, fits in the palm of your hand, and comes with EPA-certified calibration to ensure reliable readings.

Wise County became the newest member of DFW’s almost-30 year “non-attainment” area for smog, or ozone pollution, in 2012. But despite computer models showing the County having some of the highest smog levels North Texas, there’s still no smog monitor located there.  

Surprisingly, EPA regulations don’t require even a single ozone monitor in every non-attainment county, and Wise County is the only one of the ten DFW non-attainment counties not to have one. Bounds and her fellow clean air activists don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Currently the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) picks the sites where smog monitors are located. Denton’s airport monitor has recorded the highest levels of smog in DFW the last few years. But because of wind direction and its large number of pollution sources, computer models predict even higher levels of smog in Wise County.

That’s important because the size and scope of local clean air plans are determined by how high or low smog readings are in North Texas. The higher the smog levels, the more cuts in pollution from coal plants, cement kilns, and gas industry facilities are required to comply with the Clean Air Act.

Not surprisingly, spoke persons for those industries claim such cuts aren’t needed, but the state has made the same claims despite evidence from their own computer models showing new controls could bring the area into compliance with the Clean Air Act for the first time since 1991. TCEQ also takes the position, contrary to the medical consensus, that smog isn’t bad for public health.

Bounds believes the TCEQ doesn’t want a smog monitor in Wise County precisely because it’d record even higher levels of the pollution than current monitors are picking up and trigger regulatory requirements to make bigger cuts.

“By not measuring smog in the place it’s predicted to be the worst, what we don’t know is hurting us,” she explained.

Because TCEQ’s priority is to protect a handful of industrial polluters at the expense of seven million DFW residents we’re getting clean air plans based on one, rosier set of numbers, while the actual pollution levels are probably higher. That’s one reason why we’ve been in continual violation of the Clean air Act since 1991.”

Downwinders Director Jim Schermbeck said the two monitors, and others the group is buying, would be used both in stand-alone stationary locations within the County and by vehicle and drone -based platforms. They can be adapted to provide wireless connections and be plugged-in to larger networks of citizen-based monitors – something already being designed by a consortium of local universities, municipalities, and citizen groups co-founded by Downwinders.

On “high ozone days,” Downwinders will scramble a crew of citizen scientists to record ozone levels in Wise County and compare their results to those from other DFW monitors.

Besides giving the public and policymakers a more realistic view of DFW smog levels, Downwinders hope to put pressure on the EPA and the State to place one or more official ozone monitors in Wise County. Schermbeck said the group’s efforts at identifying patterns or hotspots in the County would help clean air advocates find the best place to put such a monitor.

Although the purchased monitors only arrived on the market in January, Downwinders’ Wise County Ozone Project has been over a year in planning.

It was as last year’s Earth Day Texas that Downwinders won a $3000 prize with its proposal to use small electronic air sensors combined with drone technology to provide better air pollution measurements across DFW. Wise County smog was one of the specific examples used in the presentation.

Downwinders used the Earth Day Texas funding as seed money to attract other support to fund its own North Texas CLEAN Air Force – a citizen science campaign whose first target is Wise County smog. With the purchase of the monitors, it’s believed to be the only citizens’ group in the state with the ability to independently measure ozone pollution with its own devices, much less with EPA-calibrated instruments.

Schermbeck says the group is looking to recruit both researchers who want to lend their professional help to the project, and those people who just want to help do their part in a local fight for cleaner air.“ Sadly, this is what it’s come down to in 2017 Texas: residents having to organize themselves into performing basic public health functions usually carried out by their state government.”