Website Design

New website aims to pierce the haze of pollution permits in Houston

Houston, home of the country’s oil and gas industry and one of its dirtiest airs, isn’t the easiest place to be an environmental activist or a mother worried about her child’s asthma. .

In theory, the state of Texas pollution regulator maintains a website where citizens can track companies applying for permits to discharge toxins from chemical storages, landfills, refineries or power plants. electricity around the corner.

But in practice, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality site is more byzantine than inviting. It lists statewide permit applications on separate pages for air pollution, industrial and hazardous waste, municipal solid waste, radioactive materials, underground injection, and water pollution. And to see the location of a project, readers must open an attached PDF, which also lists proposed pollutants as “NOX», « PM/PMten“, “VOC” and “H2S.”

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Community advocates in Houston, home to 6 million people and America’s largest petrochemical complex, have long complained that the opaque process is keeping communities out of conversations about polluters seeking to move into their neighborhoods. .

“Countless permits pass without anyone knowing,” said Anthony D’Souza, research and policy coordinator at Air Alliance Houston. “The massive industrial and petrochemical presence in Houston, coupled with a lack of zoning, means large polluters may be allowed to operate within a stone’s throw of residential areas.”

Now, after more than a decade of manually collating and sorting permit data, Air Alliance Houston has hired a data science company to create an easy-to-use platform designed to help citizen groups combat the rapid pace of pollution permits in Houston and the Harris area. County.

The new website, called AirMail and launched on Tuesday, automatically gathers data from TCEQ’s labyrinthine website so ordinary citizens and citizen groups can easily see where polluting projects are planned, file formal comments and request public hearings. .

“This lack of transparency is an intentional policy decision by TCEQ made to favor industrial development over community concerns,” D’Souza said at the launch.

The TCEQ, in a statement, said it “values ​​public participation” and publishes permit application information online in accordance with state law. He said he was “always looking for ways to improve communication” and had included “website usability improvements” in his 2024 budget request.

Echoing the concerns of environmentalists, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee and Lone Star Legal Aid filed a lawsuit this year against the TCEQ, alleging the agency failed to engage the public enough in its process. authorization of highly polluting concrete batching plants. The complaint said TCEQ had made poor efforts to use Spanish in Spanish-speaking communities (in a city that is 45% Hispanic). He also said the regulator had recently relaxed licensing criteria, removing requirements to demonstrate the health safety of particulate emissions.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency responded, announcing it would investigate the TCEQ for violating federal civil rights law.

“Harris County is littered with concrete batching plants, and they’re mostly in black and brown communities,” Menefee said. “People who live near these plants, including children, can face many health risks, including respiratory disease and cancer…And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not do nothing to stop it.”

The sprawling, swampy Houston metro area has made big improvements in air quality since it was dubbed the most polluted city in the United States more than two decades ago, but rapid industrial construction these recent years has added many requests to the queue for permission to discharge contaminants into the air, soil and water.

On Tuesday, AirMail showed 50 pollution permit notices open for public comment in Houston and surrounding Harris County, as well as 569 that have been closed in the past 12 months. Although TCEQ posts public comment opportunities with each pollution request, activists say the time and expertise required to navigate the complex process through a series of web pages effectively prevents the most affected communities from engaging. .

“While they make the data available, the way it’s presented can be difficult for the layman to understand,” said Charlotte Cisneros, executive director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in Houston, which is not affiliated with Air Alliance. . “It makes it difficult for people to get involved.”

Users of the TCEQ website should do their own research of proposed addresses for polluting projects to see if they sit near homes or schools. Information on the applicant company and the pollutants themselves, as well as the public comment submission page (which requires a commenter to provide the permit number), appear elsewhere on the TCEQ webpage but are not linked. in the application documents.

Bryan Parras, a longtime community organizer who works with the Sierra Club of Houston, said virtually no one in Houston’s most contaminated neighborhoods is using the state’s website to engage in plans to increase pollution near their homes.

Many activists and citizens, he said, want to see the TCEQ give more consideration to public health and less to economic development, which often brings little benefit to the specific communities it infects.

“It’s a pro-business mentality given to them by state leaders,” Parras said. “That’s how they see their role, to help facilitate and facilitate the successful completion of permits. »

The developers of the AirMail platform hope this will create a major increase in pressure on citizen interest regulators by circumventing the obstacles posed by the TCEQ website.

For Air Alliance Houston, the program condenses a week of proposed pollution research and analysis into 15 minutes. It generates lists of residential addresses at specified distances from proposed projects so that the organization can post notices and instructions for public participation.

Air Alliance Houston has already used AirMail to quickly notify 10,000 residents of two pollution permits, said Jennifer Hadayia, the group’s executive director.

“It probably would have taken us 10,000 minutes before,” she said.

The platform, which covers four Texas counties, is also publicly available. At the launch on Tuesday, Taylor Smith, a consultant for AirMail partner data science firm January Advisors, showed the public platform on a screen.

A searchable map of Harris County appears with dots showing the locations of every air, water pollution and landfill permit currently open for public comment, as well as any that have recently been closed.

Each point opens a window with the permit application, a link to the application profile with TCEQ, an interactive calculator of nearby residences, and a large blue button labeled “submit a public comment”, which links directly to a submission form TCEQ specific to this application.

“The more comments submitted, the more pressure there is on TCEQ to consider public opinion,” Smith said.

It also provides contact information for state legislators whose districts encompass the proposal site and are able to order a public TCEQ hearing upon public request.

Smith said existing digital tools show live pollution and air quality data, but none are designed to show citizens where emissions have been proposed.

“It’s the first proactive tool,” she said. “AirMail gives you information about facilities even before they start polluting.”

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