Getting Wise to Bad Air: North Texans Take Smog Monitoring Into Own Hands

After TCEQ refused to place smog monitors in Wise County, a local environmental group decided to take action.

After TCEQ refused to place smog monitors in Wise County, a local environmental group decided to take action.

Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group, has purchased monitors to measure air quality in Wise County.  courtesy Downwinders at Risk

How bad is the smog problem in Wise County? Situated just west of the Dallas-Fort Worth sprawl, Wise County is in the heart of the Barnett Shale gas patch and since 2012 has been designated by the EPA as out of compliance with federal ozone standards. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) can only guess at how bad the pollution is; the agency is unwilling to install an air monitor there that would track ozone levels.

“The state is not interested in putting a monitor out there and neither is the county,” said Jim Schermbeck, the director of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group.

With the government unwilling to act, members of Downwinders decided to take matters into their own hands. In April, the group purchased two handheld air monitors — a stationary one to be installed at a yet-to-be-determined location and the other to be fitted in a vehicle or a drone — at a cost of nearly $10,000. The monitors, which are EPA-certified and can fit in the palm of your hand, will help residents quantify smog levels, Schermbeck said.

In 2012, the EPA found that emissions of smog-forming pollutants in Wise County were among the highest in the 14-county DFW nonattainment area, a federal designation for places that are required to clean up the air. As a result, the EPA determined that Wise County was out of compliance. TCEQ fought the decision, but the courts ultimately sided with the EPA. Still, the state never installed ozone monitors in the county — and the EPA hasn’t required it.

Schermbeck says Texas has an incentive to avoid knowing more about air quality in Wise County. Whether a region meets federal ozone standards — currently at 75 parts per billion (ppb) — is determined by the air monitor with the highest reading in the area. Currently, the state has 20 smog monitors in the DFW area and the monitor showing the highest reading — 80 ppb — is located at the Denton airport, about 25 miles east of Decatur, the Wise County seat. If the state installs a monitor in Wise and finds that smog levels there are higher than in Denton, the DFW area might have to implement tougher pollution controls. (Stricter EPA regulations kick in when an area exceeds 80 ppb.)

Andrea Morrow, a spokesperson for TCEQ, said the agency has other air quality monitors in Wise County. The agency is not required to install smog monitors in every county, and it isn’t “fiscally possible or prudent” to locate monitors based on where a model predicts high ozone levels, she said.

Schermbeck said one of the reasons his group purchased the monitors was to “take power away from Austin” while shaming TCEQ.

“If our group with our budget can put two of these monitors in Wise County, there’s no reason why the state of Texas can’t put at least two or more of their own monitors up there,” he said. “So, shut us up. Put your own monitors up there yourself.”

This article appears in the June 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.

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Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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