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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Alex Cuclis: Working for better air pollution monitoring

Alex Cuclis

Helping to clean the air in Houston and other areas with heavy petrochemical concentrations

From his promotion of “green refineries,” to his research on pollution monitoring, and now to his growing attention to newer emission-measuring technologies, HARC research scientist Alex Cuclis applies his technical expertise to help clean the air in the Houston region and other areas with heavy petrochemical concentrations.

Cuclis, a former engineer at a major Houston-region refinery, has established himself as a prominent voice for greater use of remote-sensing technologies to provide a better picture of how much air pollution is emitted by industrial facilities.

"We need to find ways to make refineries greener and more profitable. If the greenest refineries go bankrupt, everyone loses."

--Alex Cuclis, Research Scientist, Air Quality and Emissions

His work has been influential. A few examples:

  • Cuclis, who joined HARC in 2004 from the University of Houston-Clear Lake, has played a key role in managing studies that have become widely known after establishing through remote sensing that at least some local industries were emitting substantially more air pollution – five to 15 times more – than officially-authorized estimation methods had indicated.
  • He created the informal Houston Area Monitoring Group in 2005 – bringing together representatives of academic, corporate, government and environmentalist organizations – to conduct discussions that might help shed light on why emission estimates and measurements differed by so much.
  • Citing Cuclis’ findings and other reports on underestimate petrochemical emissions, former Houston Mayor Bill White asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 to correct the emission numbers it used in efforts to improve Houston’s air quality. The EPA responded to White with a variety of actions.
  • Cuclis was invited by the EPA to speak at a conference on emissions inventories at a 2012 conference in Florida. His presentation, "Why emission factors [estimation techniques] don't work at refineries and what to do about it," reviewed his and others' research, summarizing the promise and potential pitfalls of remote-sensing measurements. "We need to find ways to make refineries greener and more profitable," Cuclis told the conference. "If the greenest refineries go bankrupt, everyone loses."
  • Texas and national news outlets have recognized Cuclis' role in advancing use of remote-sensing tools to verify or correct emission estimates. A Houston Chronicle article in 2012, for example, said he is "integral to the cadre of scientists and engineers concerned about undercounts" of emissions produced by estimation methods.

Recently, expanding his research efforts into a related area, Cuclis has begun collaborating with other organizations to help examine possible applications of new emission-sensing devices that are considered promising because of greater portability and lower cost.

It's an emerging field that has caught the attention of environmental regulators, researchers, advocates and others, because of the potential uses of such devices by citizens concerned about pollution affecting their neighborhoods. For instance, the agenda of Air Sensors 2014, a conference scheduled in June at the EPA's Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina, includes "performance of low-cost sensors" and "citizen science and community-based monitoring."

One of the organizations with which Cuclis has been working, Air Alliance Houston, has described the potential for such devices this way:

Recent development in air sensor technology is rapidly changing the field of air quality monitoring. New sensors are smaller, easy to use, and relatively cheap. As a result, the fields of air monitoring and environmental “sensing” are teeming with newfound interest from academia, health professionals, and environmental justice activists. Most agree that this development has the great potential to lead to improved public health and more informed communities.

Beginning last summer, Cuclis worked with a partnership of three environmental organizations – the local Air Alliance Houston and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and the national Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) – to try out sensors used by EPA for enforcement in Manchester, a small, mainly Hispanic community near various major pollution sources on Houston's east side, which has been the site of air quality concerns for decades.

With its long history of citizens' pollution complaints, Manchester was a particularly fitting place for the research.

Remote-sensing instruments such as those in HARC's earlier studies have focused on measuring levels of air pollutants well above the ground, where they can react over a period of time, produce ozone, a respiratory hazard and persistent air quality problem in Houston, which can affect downwind areas far away.

On the other hand, Cuclis explained, some of the cheaper, portable sensors that are becoming widely available offer potential benefits in measuring ground-level pollutants, such as tiny particles and toxic chemical gases, that people may breathe in the immediate vicinity of emission sources such as those that ring Manchester.

Complicating factors confront pollution-monitoring efforts using such devices, however, because they need to be in place over extended periods and take many samples, Cuclis added. Also, researchers studying the resulting measurements for public-health implications must interpret them in the context of other scientific findings about pollution exposure and health impacts.

In the case of the Manchester study, researchers measured both fine airborne particles and a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can yield ozone in atmospheric reactions and include some substances considered toxic on their own.

"Our goal," EIP announced before the monitoring was conducted, "is to measure the pollutant levels in the Manchester neighborhood, a Latino community that is surrounded by petrochemical facilities and other heavy industry, and to determine whether additional steps might be necessary to reduce exposure to those pollutants."

The organization said it hoped to combine the findings with those from a similar project in a Baltimore neighborhood to develop "a model that can be adopted in other communities which are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution."

Cuclis' role in the effort involved analyzing the data and offering a variety of technical recommendations for further analysis of the monitoring data that were obtained and for conducting any follow-up measurements the study sponsors might carry out.

The devices used "did not detect ambient VOC levels that are of concern during the monitoring program," Cuclis wrote, but "further study is warranted because of the episodic nature of VOC emissions from petrochemical plants and refineries and because of the prevailing wind directions on the days EIP and TEJAS attempted to conduct VOC monitoring."

The particle measurements showed average levels in Manchester that were higher than those recorded at a state government monitor on Clinton Drive, just across the Houston Ship Channel, that consistently have ranked among the Houston area's highest particle readings over the years. Even so, Cuclis cautioned, “it is difficult to draw conclusions because 12 of the 27 samples obtained by EIP and TEJAS were lower than the values observed at Clinton."

In contrast to that project, which addressed air pollutants that potentially pose direct risks to human health, Cuclis will also participate in another study with a different environmental focus.

Sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, the two-year effort will test the uses of cheaper, continuous sensing devices for measuring emissions of methane, a potent climate-warming gas, at oil and gas facilities. Controversy over such methane releases' contribution to global warming has grown along with the current oil and gas boom in Texas and other locations.

Cuclis combines an enthusiasm for such envelope-pushing research with a skeptical scientist's cautious dedication to using the results properly.

"A flood of sensors is out there," he said, stressing the importance of answering key questions in order to figure out how to get accurate, reliable information to inform policy decisions: "How do we sort through the sensors that work well and the ones that don't work well and how do we use the data that's available?"

He is concerned that there may now be a push toward too much use of cheaper sensors, too soon, and in untrained hands, which could be detrimental to scientifically-based pollution-reduction efforts.

"Mixing cheap sensors with somebody who doesn't know how the sensors work, you're going to get bad data," he said.

One way to prevent that problem, he added, is to blend the approaches adopted by the EIP and Air Alliance Houston – by carefully training community members who will use less expensive sensors in their neighborhoods to become familiar with EPA-approved enforcement sensors and methods.