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Houston, home of the nation’s oil and gas industry and some of its dirtiest air, isn’t the easiest place to be an environmental activist—or a mom worried about her child’s asthma.
In theory, Texas’ state pollution regulator keeps a website where citizens can track businesses applying for permits to discharge toxins from chemical warehouses, waste dumps, refineries or generator stations down the block.
But in practice, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s site is more byzantine than inviting. It lists permit applications from across the state on separate pages for air pollution, industrial and hazardous waste, municipal solid waste, radioactive materials, underground injections and water pollution. And to see a project’s location, readers must open an attached PDF, which also lists proposed pollutants like “NOX,” “PM/PM10,” “VOC” and “H2S.”
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Community advocates in Houston, home to 6 million people and the largest U.S. petrochemical complex, have long complained that the opaque process keeps communities out of conversations about polluters seeking to set up shop in their neighborhoods.
“Countless permits go by without anyone even 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 that large polluters can be permitted to operate a stone’s throw away from residential areas.”
Now, after more than a decade of manually assembling and sifting that permit data, Air Alliance Houston tapped a data science firm to build a user-friendly platform designed to help citizen groups push back against the rapid pace of pollution permitting in Houston and surrounding Harris County.
The new website, called AirMail and launched on Tuesday, automatically assembles data from across TCEQ’s labyrinthine website so that ordinary people and citizens groups can easily see where polluting projects are planned, file official comments and request public hearings.
“This lack of transparency is an intentional policy decision by the 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 posts permit application information online in accordance with state law. It said it was “always looking for ways to improve communication” and had included “website usability enhancements” in its 2024 budget request.
Echoing the concerns of environmentalists, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee and Lone Star Legal Aid filed a complaint this year against the TCEQ, alleging failures by the agency to adequately engage the public in its permitting process of highly polluting concrete batch plants. The complaint said TCEQ made poor efforts to use Spanish in Spanish-speaking communities (in a city that is 45 percent Hispanic). It also said the regulator had recently loosened permit 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 violations of federal civil rights law.
“Harris County is littered with concrete batch plants, and they’re primarily in Black and Brown communities,” Menefee said. “The people who live by these plants, including children, can face many health risks, including respiratory illness and cancer…And the Texas Commission on Environment Quality does nothing to stop it.”
The sprawling, swampy Houston metro area has made great improvements in air quality since it was dubbed the smoggiest U.S. city more than two decades ago, but a rapid industrial buildout in recent years has added many applications to the queue for approval 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, plus 569 that closed in the last 12 months. Although TCEQ posts opportunities for public comment with every pollution application, activists say the time and expertise required to navigate the complex process through a series of webpages effectively blocks most affected communities from engaging.
“While they make data available, the way it’s presented can be hard for the layperson to understand,” said Charlotte Cisneros, executive director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in Houston, which is not affiliated with Air Alliance. “That makes it hard for people to get involved.”
Users of the TCEQ website must do their own search of proposed addresses polluting projects to see if they sit near homes or schools. Information on the applicant company and the pollutants themselves, as well the page for submitting public comment (which requires a commenter to provide the permit number), appear elsewhere in the TCEQ webpage but are not linked in application materials.
Bryan Parras, a longtime community organizer who works with the Sierra Club in Houston, said virtually no one in Houston’s most contaminated neighborhoods uses the state website to engage with plans for more 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 contaminates.
“It’s a pro-business mentality that is given to them by state leadership,” Parras said. “That’s just how they see their role, to help facilitate and aid the successful completion of permits.”
Developers of the AirMail platform hope it creates a major increase in pressure on regulators from citizen interests by working around the obstacles posed by the TCEQ website.
For Air Alliance Houston, the program condenses a week’s worth of research and analysis on proposed pollution into 15 minutes. It generates lists of residential addresses within specified distances of proposed projects so that the organization can mail out notices and instructions for public participation.
Air Alliance Houston has already used AirMail to quickly notify 10,000 residents about two pollution permits, said Jennifer Hadayia, the group’s executive director.
“That would probably have taken us 10,000 minutes before,” she said.
The platform, which covers four Texas counties, is also available for public access. At the launch Tuesday, Taylor Smith, a consultant for data science firm January Advisors, a partner in AirMail, showed the public platform on a screen.
A searchable map of Harris County appears with dots marking locations of every permit for air, water and landfill pollution currently open for public comment plus all that were recently closed.
Each dot opens a window with the permit application, a link to the application’s profile with TCEQ, an interactive calculator of nearby residences and a large blue button labeled “submit public comment,” which links directly to a TCEQ submission form specific to that application.
“The more comments that are submitted, the more pressure that is applied to TCEQ to consider public opinion,” Smith said.
It also provides contact information for the state legislators whose districts encompass the proposal site, and are able to order a public hearing from TCEQ at the public behest.
Smith said existing digital tools display live pollution and air quality data, but none are designed to show citizens where emissions have been proposed.
“This is the first proactive tool,” she said. “AirMail provides you with information about the facilities before they even begin to pollute.”