Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
With $3 million in new federal funding, air quality specialists at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) will refine sophisticated methods they have been developing to help understand and improve air quality.
These techniques, to be refined through five federally-backed research projects over the next three years, hold special promise for addressing high levels of air pollution in industrial neighborhoods and in areas near oil and gas production facilities.
HARC recently received word from Harris County, the primary local contractor for the grant from the U.S. Interior Department, that it will be authorized to conduct this array of five research projects, said Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer, director of air quality research.
One key project will involve a major field study to measure people’s exposure to cancer-causing benzene and other toxic chemicals that pollute the air in communities near the industry-lined Houston Ship Channel. The same study, called BEE-TEX (for Benzene and other Toxics Exposure) will track measured pollutants to their industrial sources.
In a second project, researchers will continue to improve HARC’s recently developed computer model for investigating industrial pollution sources and assessing air quality at the neighborhood level.
This project will also enhance HARC’s Air Research Information Infrastructure, a multifaceted online tool that melds advanced mapping and data-mining technologies to help researchers and the general public analyze air quality with a tight geographic focus.
Other projects carried out with the federal grant will enhance inventories of Houston-area pollution sources, model reductions in smog levels from 2006-09 so they are better understood, and analyze data gathered during a 2009 study that measured pollutants in industrial neighborhoods with sophisticated remote-sensing equipment.
Despite improvements in air quality over the years, stubborn problems persist in Texas. They notably include urban smog that threatens public health across metropolitan regions, as well as localized “hot spots” where higher levels of toxic chemicals occur. Besides threatening people’s health by themselves, some of those chemicals and their byproducts contribute to ground-level ozone, smog’s lung-damaging ingredient.
To help address such issues, HARC has been developing what Olaguer calls “a suite of very advanced tools to assess air quality on the neighborhood scale.” They include advanced methods for measuring air pollutants, high-resolution computer modeling techniques to simulate pollution emissions and atmospheric reactions, and advanced digital tools to simplify access to air quality information.
These tools synthesize key findings and methods derived from major research projects that HARC managed over the last decade for the state of Texas.
The new federal funding is just one example of the positive attention HARC’s toolkit is receiving. Key aspects of HARC’s work are explained in three new articles in prominent, peer-reviewed journals.
An important aim of HARC’s air quality work is to “tightly intertwine” advanced pollution-monitoring methods and high-resolution computer modeling for a close-up examination of emission sources and pollution levels, Olaguer said.
Many conventional air quality models typically operate on much larger geographic scales than HARC’s neighborhood-focused modeling, for instance. And the pollution-monitoring methods honed by HARC, unlike others that are often used, can “fingerprint” plumes of pollutants in the air with equipment outside the industrial facilities where they originate, erasing the need for investigators to ask a company for permission to operate inside its plant.
HARC’s new techniques are particularly promising for addressing “environmental justice” concerns in specific neighborhoods, Olaguer said.
“We want to expand the applications of these tools, expand the number of stakeholders who can use the information and empower those stakeholders in ways that have never been possible before,” he said.