The Clean Air Council is developing low-cost, mobile air quality monitors to be used by residents nearby polluting facilities. Not only will these monitors hold polluters accountable, they’ll do so by empowering the residents affected by pollution to advocate for the changes that best meet their needs.
This project is currently in the testing phase. Our Engineering & Technical Coordinator Karl is working to calibrate the air monitors and make sure they give accurate readings. Karl and our Community Health Director John are also running a pilot program in Chinatown right now to test for particulate matter with another set of monitors (and you can see the results yourself if you visit www.aircasting.org/map).
Once testing is complete we’re going to use our custom monitors throughout Pennsylvania, especially around natural gas infrastructure and fracking sites. The PA DEP has less than 100 ambient air monitors throughout the state, but there are over 7,000 active fracking wells. In many cases, the local impacts of fracking either aren’t being measured, or are being measured with questionable methods. As fracking continues to expand, so will our efforts to monitor and protect public health.
Why make air monitors?
When it comes to regulating air pollution, the devil is often in the details. Is a facility polluting more than its permit allows? If so, how often is it breaking the law, and how long do these violations last for? These are important questions for watchdog groups like the Council to know in order to pressure regulators to take action.
Until recently, finding this information was an all-or-nothing situation. You either paid for top-quality air monitors, or you didn’t find out anything at all. The result, of course, was that concerned residents often got nothing. To fix this situation, the Clean Air Council has begun developing low-cost, mobile air quality monitors. By striking a balance between price and accuracy, these monitors can fill an important regulatory gap. While they won’t be as precise as more expensive monitors, they’ll still give an accurate sense of pollution levels, and will help determine if more monitoring is necessary.
In line with the goal of public awareness and accountability, the data from the monitors are regularly uploaded for anyone to view at www.aircasting.org/map. As more monitors come online and more people contribute, we’ll all gain a better understanding of the true state of our air.
With the recent boom in fracking, oversight agencies in Pennsylvania have been struggling to keep up. While new wells are drilled and gas infrastructure further develops, the state’s residents have few means to measure the actual effect fracking is having on their air. Because fracking emits a host of dangerous pollutants (such as particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, among other hazardous air pollutants), residents near industry operations need to be able to keep an eye on pollution levels.
In 2013, the Council hired an environmental consulting firm to analyze air pollution from a number of natural gas compressor stations. The firm, AMI Environmental, looked at emission estimates, weather patterns, and other information to model where pollution from the facility would end up. Of course, this was just an estimate. Now, with the monitors, we can begin the work of testing the air near these sites and seeing exactly where pollution is appearing, and at what levels.
Once that testing is complete, our next goal will be to deploy 10 monitors at notoriously bad fracking sites around Pennsylvania. The monitors will track all aspects of the gas industry’s pollution, from the actual fracking wells themselves to the pipelines, compressor stations, and other bits of infrastructure used by industry.
As mentioned above, we’re currently testing this program out right now in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. Chinatown is the early focus of our monitoring pilot because of its proximity to numerous sources of pollution (such as I-676, the bus terminal, and restaurants), as well as its disproportionately high number of low-income and minority residents.
With this pilot program, we’re using AirBeam monitors to collect our own data and identify pollution hotspots. Once that’s complete, we’ll compare our results with those from Chinatown’s single government-run air monitor. We’re also looking at what approaches work in getting community members involved in measuring the air quality of their neighborhood.
There really is no limit to the potential uses for these monitors. While it will take some time to complete all the goals listed above, we have some early thoughts for future projects. The Harrisburg Incinerator has been a regular violator of the Clean Air Act and could use more oversight to show just how bad air quality is for the surrounding neighborhood (especially since the EPA has zero data online about the facility’s air pollution). The old Sunoco refinery (now Philadelphia Energy Solutions) in Southwest Philadelphia is another prime option. In February of 2015, residents reported huge plumes of smoke spewing from the facility. Sunoco had the only monitoring equipment around, and it reported no illegal activity.
In an effort to provide communities with tools to advocate for stronger air pollution laws and regulations, Clean Air Council released a white paper and made a presentation in Washington, D.C. at the National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program. Titled “Air Modeling as a Tool in Environmental Law and Policy: A Guide for Communities and Environmental Groups,” the white paper serves as a primer on the law and science of air modeling, the importance of air quality information in the permitting process for industrial facilities, and how citizens can use this information to protect their health. The paper also addresses legal remedies available to community groups and environmental organizations for addressing air pollution problems.
Air Modeling as a Tool in Environmental Law and Policy: A Guide for Communities and Environmental Groups
Part I: Criteria Pollutants, National Ambient Air Quality Standards, State Implementation Plans, Attainment and Nonattainment Areas
Part II: Practical Uses of Air Modeling in Litigation and Regulatory Contexts
These are just our ideas so far, and nothing is set in stone. If you have an idea for how we should use these monitors, get in touch! Community engagement is key to the success of this program, so if it’s something you’re passionate about, we want to know.
If you’d like to learn more about this program, or get involved, you can get in touch with the Council’s Engineering & Technical Coordinator, Karl Koerner. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his phone number is 215-567-4004 ext. 117.