The way Geeta Persad sees it, the nation’s great coastal cities are facing an environmental reckoning with threats from both the air and the sea.
In the air, there is the belching, toxic exhaust from factories, petrochemical facilities, sewage treatment plants and other industrial operations which has been linked to a range of health ailments—from asthma to cancers—in the country’s urban centers.
From the sea, because of climate change, rising sea levels and the creeping threat of hurricanes and other weather events growing more frequent and more intense have increased the risk of debilitating floods.
“You have an amazing coalescence of these different factors,” said Persad, a climate scientist at the University of Texas-Austin. “There’s the flooding, and the air quality and the industry, and the communities. There’s hurricanes, there’s heat waves, there’s everything you can think of.”
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Persad is part of a team of researchers who are examining that coalescence as part of a new multi-year study funded by a $66 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that scientists hope can one day help cities mitigate the multiple effects of climate change.
In addition to Persad and her co-researchers, the Department of Energy is using the same grant funds to create two other so-called Urban Integrated Field Laboratories—one in Chicago and the other in Baltimore—to “inform equitable climate and energy solutions that can strengthen community-scale resilience across urban landscapes.”
Persad and her colleagues will base their research in two cities near the Gulf Coast of Texas—Beaumont and Port Arthur. Port Arthur, a town of about 55,000 that borders Sabine Lake, is home to a major oil refinery and has been hit by a series of serious storms since the turn of the century, including Hurricanes Rita (2005), Ike (2008) and Harvey (2017). Beaumont, which has twice the population of its neighbor and sits about 20 miles further inland, has over the years hosted a range of chemical manufacturers and oil producers, including ExxonMobil, Goodyear and DuPont.
As they study the effects of air pollution and the increased risk of flooding in those communities, the Texas team hopes to bring together two disciplines that are not often associated with each other—one that involves the study of natural hazards, the other, focused on questions of environmental justice.
“Those two worlds—the natural hazard world of hurricanes and floods, and the environmental justice world of exposure to industrial facilities—have only recently started really mixing,” said Michelle Annette Meyer, director of the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, which is also participating in the study. “We’re excited, in a nerdy way, to look at developing a very specific way to indicate which communities are most affected by both of these hazards together.”
Meyer described an effort that cut across multiple disciplines and brought together hydrological engineers, air pollution experts, chemists, social scientists, community engagement specialists, structural engineers and more.
“On our team, we have a few urban planners and a few landscape architects who understand how toxins move through floodwaters and can estimate which parts of the community are going to potentially be more exposed to toxin-laden floodwaters,” Meyer said. “From that, we can see which communities already have health concerns. Maybe there’s areas that have high rates of asthma, and they would need or should get mitigation first for some of the issues so that we do our climate adaptation in an equitable way.”
Meyer said the team’s goal is that its findings can be used to help other communities develop mitigation strategies to deal with the effects of poor air quality and an increased flooding threat.
“The population of Port Arthur is different than, say, the population of St. Louis, Missouri, or someplace in California that’s on the coast, or Louisiana or New York,” Meyer said, adding that nevertheless she hopes those communities could draw on the team’s work “and really find which neighborhoods they should target their mitigation measures and their climate adaptation to.”
The other institutions participating in the Texas study include Lamar University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Prairie View A&M University. Meyer said that besides the scientists who are working on the project, members of the local community will also be essential in providing first-person accounts of the challenges they have faced in the form of adverse health effects from air pollution and in recovering from the effects of major storms.
“So often they’re not included,” Meyer said, referring to the lack of participation by community residents in studies of this kind. “So having their voice is important. But it’s important for the science, too, because we’re using national-level indicators, but that might not be quite accurate. So we really need the local perspective to know what errors we’re making with the data that we have and what data we might need to collect.”
Paola Passalacqua, a water resources engineer at the University of Texas-Austin who is the study’s lead investigator, said that community input would be crucial as researchers assembled models and crafted projections on the effects of air pollution and flooding.
“We’re going to be testing a variety of possible solutions,” Passalacqua said. “Good infrastructure and so forth, to understand how we can mitigate the effects of flooding and pollution and what the impact of the federal intervention is, how that is fed back into the environment.”
Passalacqua said the project is expected to take about five years to complete and that it will involve nearly three dozen researchers.
For her part, Persad said one of the most gratifying components of the project is that researchers intend to make all of the data collected during the project publicly available as a dataset for members of the community. That kind of information can be particularly valuable for communities of color and low-income residents—who have typically borne a disproportionate burden from environmental harms— as they attempt to make the case for policy changes and other interventions by official agencies.
“That’s a really big environmental justice and equity benefit,” Persad said. “Not everywhere has the resources that places like New York or Los Angeles do to produce this information or to pay consultants to produce this information.”
In that way, researchers said, the project might become a source of civic empowerment for Beaumont and Port Arthur.
“They can make sure that certain infrastructure gets built to reduce climate vulnerability,” Persad said of the communities involved in the project. “But getting access to all of those resources requires that a community be able to go to the federal government and say, ‘Look, here is our climate vulnerability. Here we have the data that shows what vulnerability climate change is going to create for us.’ So part of what we’re trying to do in this project is give them the data and the ammunition to actually go and access those resources.”