NASA’s Harvey offer refused
Given all the petroleum refineries and chemical plants constantly belching who-knows-what into the local atmosphere, Houston should be very concerned that state environmental protection officials may have put people’s health at risk by refusing NASA’s officer to monitor air pollution after Hurricane Harvey.
Harvey knocked down smokestacks, damaged pipelines, broke chemical storage tanks, and flooded hazardous waste sites, causing poisonous runoff to spill into nearby streams. All hands were needed to assess the 2017 storm’s environmental impact and figure out what immediate steps should be taken to protect the public. Yet when NASA extended its hand, it was refused.
That revelation was made this week by the Los Angeles Times, which reviewed post-Harvey emails between NASA officials and Michael Honeycutt, director of the toxicology division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
NASA had a DC-8 plane equipped with some of the world’s most sophisticated air pollution monitoring equipment ready to fly from California to Texas when Honeycutt told the space agency not to bother. “At this time, we don’t think your data would be useful,” Honeycutt wrote to NASA.
He said TCEQ would instead use low-flying helicopters equipped with infra-red cameras, mobile bus units and crews with handheld devices to sample the air. The Environmental Protection Agency agreed with Honeycutt’s assessment that the NASA data might create “confusion.”
Honeycutt doubled down on his decision Tuesday night, telling the Chronicle’s Mike Morris, “I do this for a living. I know what data we need.” However, his agency in a statement Wednesday to the Chronicle editorial board seemed to pass the buck to NASA: “The air monitoring network was up and running for a week at the time of the NASA offer, giving us ground-level results needed to identify sources or affected neighborhoods,” the statement read. “After discussing this with the EPA and NASA, NASA made the decision to cancel the flight.”
Really? The Times article said NASA officials were stunned by Honeycutt’s refusal of its assistance. Texans, especially those who had trouble breathing amid the acrid air left by Harvey, should be shocked too. And outraged.
Honeycutt is supposed to be a scientist. In fact, two months after Harvey he was named chairman of the EPA science advisory board. Since when do scientists refuse an offer of additional data to help them make the right analysis?
He argued to the Chronicle that NASA “flying from that far up” couldn’t “pinpoint exactly where pollution is coming from.” Actually, NASA’S flying chemistry lab can fly as low as 500 feet and soar up to 40,000 feet. It can host up to three dozen scientists and since 2016 has flown more than 197,000 miles across the world to sample airborne gases and particles. The lab has the ability to analyze more than 450 types of air pollutant compounds, compared with the 24 compounds EPA’s single-prop air pollution plane can analyze.
Honeycutt’s cold shoulder to NASA has renewed fears that he too often favors industry over the environment. The Environmental Defense Fund opposed his appointment to chair the EPA science advisory board, pointing out that the TCEQ official had criticized the EPA’s health-based standards for ozone because “most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors.”
The Chronicle reported in 2015 that TCEQ paid a consulting firm $2.6 million to help it argue that stricter EPA smog rules would cost Texas industries billions of dollars without markedly improving public health. Honeycutt defended the consultant contract, saying it cost less than what would be saved by weakening the ozone rule. “So we think that the return on investment in this is just phenomenal,” he said.
That’s not an appropriate response from someone Texans are paying to be an environmental steward.
An investigation last year by the Chronicle and The Associated Press revealed the toxic footprint left by Harvey was much bigger than authorities reported. Benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and other known human carcinogens were among the dozens of tons of industrial chemicals released throughout Houston’s petrochemical corridor and surrounding neighborhoods and waterways following Harvey’s torrential rains.
Houston residents understand the economic lifeblood of this sprawling metropolitan community flows at a price — the potential dangers to public health posed by the more than 500 chemical plants and 10 refineries located within the nation’s largest energy corridor. The dangers are only acceptable if those charged with protecting public health are doing their jobs.
Honeycutt has failed in that endeavor. Instead of worrying about having too much data (in science, there’s really no such thing); he should be worried about having too much of something that is harmful when you’re loaded with it — hubris.