Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Provides an Update on County Progress to Ramp Up Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement
HOUSTON (CW39) Today, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo joined Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, county officials and representatives from a research nonprofit and private industry to provide an update on actions the county has taken over the past two years to enhance environmental monitoring and enforcement.
Since the ITC Fire on March 17, 2019, Harris County has undertaken historic steps to modernize the county’s ability to protect the environment and enable a proactive response to threats to public health and safety. These actions, which represent the biggest investments in environmental protection in more than 30 years, follow decades of systemic underfunding and neglect of key County departments and services aimed at protecting residents against environmental hazards, including man-made and natural disasters.
“We are committed to addressing the root causes of repeated incidents that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations who live in the shadow of industry,” Judge Hidalgo said. “All families, regardless of zip code, should be able to raise their children without fear of explosions and the spillover effect of poor air quality. The steps we’ve taken are charting the course for long-overdue change, but it will take a sustained effort of working together, across disciplines and industries, to reverse the damage of decades of underinvestment.”
Since March 2019, Harris County has invested in vigorous environmental monitoring and enforcement, with more than $11 million allocated towards improving our preparedness and response to chemical incidents . The County added emergency response workers, chemists and field investigators to the pollution control department, and doubled the size of the County HazMat team. To hold polluters accountable, the County increased its capacity to pursue legal actions. Also, following the findings of a gap analysis, Judge Hidalgo directed agencies to improve monitoring and information sharing.
Most recently, a partnership between Harris County, the research nonprofit Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), and private industry will add 5 air monitors to the county’s existing fixed, 24/7 air monitoring network and dozens of handheld air monitors for emergency response. The effort, which will include an examination of historical data and the improvement of air monitoring protocols and communication, was made possible through a $1 million grant provided to Harris County by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Foundation in December 2019.
The actions taken thus far represent the most significant enhancement of County environmental protections in at least 30 years, and include:
Vigorous Environmental Monitoring:
- $5.9 million allocated to increase staffing and purchase equipment, including a mobile air monitoring lab, new equipment for the onsite lab, fixed and mobile monitors, safety gear for hazmat responders, and monitors to build a steady-state network in the community that operates even when disasters are not occuring.
- 29 new staff positions, including emergency response workers, chemists, and field investigators, in the Pollution Control Services (PCS) department
- Adding Hazmat Unit to Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office to better serve the Western portions of the County.
- Addition of $4.6 million for staffing, geographic coverage, and equipment for the Fire Marshal’s office. Two dozen new staff positions include 18 HazMat inspectors and technicians.
- Addition of two new chemical firefighting foam trucks and a HazMat quick response vehicle.
- Launch of the Community Air Monitoring Program (CAMP), a real-time public air monitoring network that brings together data from a number of sources and monitor types to provide a more complete picture of air quality in Harris County.
- Collaboration with the City of Houston and the Environmental Defense Fund to identify and mitigate air pollution more effectively through enhanced coordination and increased air quality monitoring, funded by the Houston Endowment. In total, once all grant-funded monitors are installed, PCS will have between 22-27 fixed, real-time air quality monitors placed throughout the County.
- Increased number and frequency of concrete batch plant inspections. Since this expansion in early 2020, PCS has conducted a total of 134 inspections at concrete batch plants. In 2020, PCS received and responded to 20 percent more complaints than in 2019 (excluding ITC-specific complaints), and issued 23 percent more violation notices.
- Harris County Commissioners Court has allocated over $1 million to support additional positions for the public health department, including environmental health and emergency response physicians, a chemical response planner, public health hygienist, an environmental toxicologist, and environmental epidemiologists.
Holding Polluters Accountable:
- Addition of four environmental prosecutors to hold large industrial firms accountable in criminal court and two pollution control investigators to pursue potential issues.
- Litigation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to roll back stricter chemical plant rules.
- Legal action by the Harris County County Attorney (CAO) against Watson Manufacturing and Grinding following an explosion that caused three fatalities in February 2020.
- Three lawsuits brought by CAO against ExxonMobil for two explosions and several unauthorized releases of pollutants at its chemical plants in Harris County.
- Pursuit of investigations into pollution in Kashmere Gardens resulting from a Union Pacific rail line.
- Filing of two amicus briefs in support of upholding California auto tailpipe emissions standards.
Transparency and Disclosure
- Launched a revamped ReadyHarris.org, the County’s flagship tool to inform residents on what to do before, during, and after disasters. The new site now includes user-friendly information on how residents can prepare for events and real-time alerts and information – like a live air monitoring map when needed – on what is happening to protect residents.
- Addition of three staff members, including an Operations Section Chief, a second industry liaison, and a social media specialist, based on gap analysis recommendations. These positions will allow for better coordination with industry and County departments as well as better public communication during incidents in the future.
- Addition of Senior Advisor for Public Safety and Emergency Management.
- A currently in development facility risk analysis tool for facilities throughout Harris County.