As Dallas residents endure poor air quality, city officials hold an 'Air Sensor Summit'
In a city with near daily air quality warnings and a well-documented history of environmental racism, communities want to know how the City of Dallas plans to make informed policy decisions.
City officials say one way is to gather air quality data — and they stressed the importance of collaboration and sharing information. That was one of the themes at a recent “Air Sensor Summit,” where city officials, environmental groups and other government agencies discussed approaches to setting up community air sensor networks and to take inventory of who else is doing the same work.
Some environmental groups say they’re still waiting for the collaboration to happen. They point to communities where the legacies of environmental racism still linger — like Joppa in southern Dallas, which is surrounded by heavy industry — where residents complain that the city has been slow to respond to their concerns.
Another concern: the city’s network of sensors produces data that can be useful to researchers. But only one sensor in Dallas produces data that can be used to enforce environmental laws in court. It’s operated by the Environmental Protection Agency in Uptown — far away from many of the mostly poor and minority neighborhoods where residents all too often wonder what’s in the air they breathe.
Invitation to collaborate
City officials say one of the goals of the summit was to get a better idea of what groups were doing air sensor work around the city.
"I think its important that we continue to collaborate and work together and share information," former Air Quality Initiatives coordinator Kevin Overton said at the Sept. 8 event.
But some groups say they've been collecting this data for years — and already extended an invitation to the city to collaborate.
Alicia Kendrick is a Joppa resident and the chair of Joppa Environmental Health Project. Kendrick was one of only a handful of residents living in areas affected by heavy pollution, at the early morning event. She says not a lot of questions from the community perspective were answered.
"After you get all this data...then what? What happens after that?" Kendrick asked.
City officials reassured Kendrick that the top two priorities were getting the information out to communities — and helping to get the data to policymakers when they are faced with zoning or permitting decisions.
Kendrick called attention to the format of the summit and questioned what really came out of it. She says the people being affected the most by pollution, severe air quality and heavy industry, were left out of the conversation.
It’s a level of obliviousness that I’m uncomfortable with,” Kendrick said.
Regulatory versus nonregulatory
During the summit, attendees questioned the data that is gathered from the sensors. Officials say there are two types of air sensors — regulatory and non-regulatory. The regulatory monitors are what the EPA uses. They’re expensive and few and far between.
The EPA only has one regulatory monitor set up in Dallas — and it’s in Uptown, far from the frontline communities situated near sources of mass pollution. The data gathered from these monitors is what environmental regulators use for enforcement actions.
The sensors the city is trying to deploy — and most of the community sensor networks — are non-regulatory. That means the data collected is not accepted for enforcement. Non-profit leaders asked whether funding was being wasted on sensors if the data could not be used to potentially shut down a heavy polluter.
Jim Schermbeck is the director of Downwinders at Risk. He says data gathered by non-regulatory monitors is still highly valuable.
“It does a lot of good,” Schermbeck said. “You can actually yoke these up to medical public health research efforts and use them as a tool.”
The city currently has 24 air monitor sensors, according to an early September meeting of the city’s newly formed Parks, Trails and the Environment committee.
Only five of those sensors have been set up and collecting data since February. The locations include directly across the street from the GAF roofing factory in West Dallas — that residents say has been polluting their air for decades — South Central Park in Joppa, a mostly minority neighborhood in southern Dallas that is almost surrounded by heavy industry and near the Mill Creek Batch Plant.
The city says the other monitors are in varying stages of being ready to start collecting data. They hope to have them out soon — but did not say when.
“Two of the priorities in gathering this data, is to make sure we provide this information to you as you make policy decisions,” Director of the Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability Carlos Evans said. “For example, whether to approve the operation of a batch plant.”
Evans says the other priority is to share the information with the communities where the sensors are being placed.
City officials say they used the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Environmental Justice” screen — a national tool to calculate inequity in communities — to get a list of locations where more monitors should be set up.
Evans says his department is trying to drill down to more local data.
Using the data
Dr. David Lary is a physics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and the lead researcher for the SharedAirDFW project. The group’s monitors give up to the hour updates on particulate matter pollution — microscopic particles that are released as the result of heavy industry.
“We would love to partner with you. We’ve actually built a network for Joppa and Paul Quinn ,” Lary said at the summit. “We’ve wanted to work with Dallas for a very long time so, I’ll just extend the invitation again.” (Paul Quinn College is the oldest historically Black college in Texas and is located in southern Dallas.)
Lary says the research would likely cost much less than city officials had been ballpark estimating for their own projects during the discussion. That's because the project utilizes student researchers and even community members to engage with the process of monitoring their environment.
The SharedAirDFW air quality dashboard combines their own sensor network, the EPA regional monitors and a network of other sensors. The group notes the color scheme used for the dashboard differs from what the EPA uses.
Community members and environmental activists hope the data collected by air quality monitors will be able to inform city policy — even if the data cannot trigger official enforcement.
Shared Air DFW has been providing real-time air quality data for years and the researchers make the data publicly available on their dashboard and website.
“It makes sense to be measuring in real time,” Lary said at the summit. “Making measurements every hour actually is not capturing the variability we see in air quality.”
The map shows the EPA monitors, the SharedAirDFW monitors and a network of other air quality sensors too. The data is presented using different colors — with red indicating a particulate matter level over what the “safe” limit is.
Overton says the color scheme used in the city’s dashboard, follows how the EPA presents their particulate matter data as well.
City officials noted that the colors used on their dashboard followed how the EPA presents its data.
Dallas city officials have recently unveiled their dashboard to start housing some of the air data they gather. But unlike the community network, the city’s dashboard is presented in a different way.
“The point is to avoid greens, yellows and reds because that instills an emotional response,” Overton said during an earlier committee meeting. “I am not a toxicologist. I can’t tell someone when it’s dangerous. All I can tell you is…if the values are high.”
Schermbeck says the absence of a medical professional on the city’s environmental staff is concerning.
“There's nobody with a medical background who can talk about what levels are bad, or serious or not serious,” Schermbeck said during the summit. “We need medical expertise to weigh in.”
Evans says he’s not sure the city’s environmental department will be expanding this budget season, given city officials’ push to decrease the recommended multi-billion-dollar budget.
Particulate matter pollution is regarded as a known link to different respiratory diseases including asthma, COPD and lung cancer, according to researchers.
Currently, there are only some regulations in place for this type of pollution. But scientists say the more damaging particles are even smaller than what the EPA regulates.
KERA reached out to the city to ask whether it was considering hiring anyone with a medical background to advise the Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability.
“We are leveraging, or have leveraged, relationships with hospitals like Parkland Hospital and Children’s Hospital and other organizations…when implementing our air sensor pilot and program. We believe these organizations are more than capable of meeting our needs,” city spokesperson Ariel Wallace said in a statement.
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