Clean Air

Environmental group takes on Dallas smog with high-tech gadgets

Environmental group takes on Dallas smog with high-tech gadgets

Calatrava Margaret McDermott bridge
City of Dallas on a non-smoggy night. Courtesy photo

Dallas environmental group Downwinders at Risk is committed to clean air and is taking matters into its own hands. The group has purchased two ozone monitors, to the tune of nearly $10,000, and will initiate a citizen-based monitoring campaign in Wise County, an area where state officials refuse to measure DFW smog.

The new toys will be on display at Earth Day Texas, happening April 21-23 at Fair Park, where they will be featured at the group's information booth. Downwinders chair Tamera Bounds says that the technology is brand new.

"With the purchase of these brand-new high-tech monitors, which reached the market only a few months ago, we become the first group in Texas to have the capability to go out in the field and do the job the State of Texas isn't willing to do," she says.

The monitor fits in the palm of your hand, and comes with EPA-certified calibration to ensure reliable readings.

The Downwinders group is focused on Wise County because computer models show that it has some of the highest smog levels in North Texas. It's the home of fracking and has major oil and gas exploration, as well as many commuters coming into DFW. And yet it has no monitor, says Downwinders director Jim Schermbeck.

"The Environmental Protection Agency leaves it up to the state to decide where to put monitors," Schermbeck says. "We've lived with the same number of monitors for a very long time. People are always shocked when we show them the map of where the monitors are located. We have 7 million people in the area and yet we have about 10-12 monitors."

Currently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) picks the sites where smog monitors are located. Denton's airport monitor has recorded the highest levels of smog in the DFW area the last few years. But because of wind direction and its large number of pollution sources, computer models predict even higher levels of smog in Wise County.

Monitoring smog levels is important because that's how the government determines the size and scope of clean air plans. The higher the smog levels, the more cuts in pollution from coal plants, cement kilns, and gas industry facilities are required to comply with the Clean Air Act.

TCEQ spokesman Brian McGovern says that the state follows federal standards.

"The TCEQ’s monitors are sited in accordance with federal requirements and strategically located to meet specific federally required monitoring objectives," McGovern says.

The Downwinders folks believe that the TCEQ doesn’t want a smog monitor in Wise County precisely because it’d record even higher levels of the pollution than current monitors are picking up and trigger regulatory requirements to make bigger cuts.

"In particular, the county commissioners don't want these things as part of a mindset that what they don't know doesn't hurt them," Schermbeck says.

Bounds says that our area has been in continual violation of the Clean Air Act since 1991.

"Because TCEQ’s priority is to protect a handful of industrial polluters at the expense of 7 million DFW residents, we’re getting clean air plans based on one, rosier set of numbers, while the actual pollution levels are probably higher," she says.

The two monitors, along with others that the group intends to buy, will be used both in stand-alone stationary locations within the County and by vehicle and drone-based platforms. They can be adapted to provide wireless connections and be plugged in to larger networks of citizen-based monitors — something already being designed by a consortium of local universities, municipalities, and citizen groups co-founded by Downwinders.

On "high ozone days," Downwinders will scramble a crew of citizen scientists to record ozone levels in Wise County and compare their results to those from other DFW monitors.

Besides giving the public and policymakers a more realistic view of DFW smog levels, Downwinders hopes to put pressure on the EPA and the State to place one or more official ozone monitors in Wise County. Schermbeck says the group's efforts at identifying patterns or hot spots in the County would help clean air advocates find the best place to put such a monitor.

"We're screwing 14 million lungs," Schermbeck says. "That's 7 million people, 14 million lungs."