Week 152: Houston, You Might Have a Problem With Your Air. But We Can’t Be Sure.

Week 152: Houston, You Might Have a Problem With Your Air. But We Can’t Be Sure.

The Trump administration failed to monitor air pollution in the toxic aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Also: Trump is taking a chainsaw to our protections, and the EPA can’t count to 20.

The Hurricane Harvey Cleanup Cover-Up

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general this week criticized the federal government’s air monitoring after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey caused a series of significant toxic releases. The failure leaves Houston-area residents in the dark regarding their exposure to harmful gases and the extent of the health risks they could now face.

I’ve been covering the Trump administration’s environmental sins for nearly three years, and I’ve gotten pretty good at distinguishing between errors of incompetence and errors of deliberate sabotage. With this faux pas, the EPA has managed to combine the two.

As Harvey approached Houston, officials shut down and secured stationary air monitors, following routine procedures, leaving only mobile monitors to collect air quality data. Those systems, the IG reported, weren’t functioning at critical moments, and when they finally came online, they didn’t collect the right kind of data. The EPA focused exclusively on acute exposure—whether people were subjected to such high levels of pollution that their immediate safety was in danger. But the agency failed to account for the risks of less intense but longer-term exposure to the pollutants. This is an extremely important consideration, because people who live near refineries are regularly exposed to elevated (but not acutely toxic) concentrations of pollutants.

That’s pure incompetence. The EPA should have had adequate air monitoring stations up and running, but it didn’t. What happened next inches closer toward the line between incompetence and sabotage.

Just after Harvey made landfall, NASA offered the EPA access to a state-of-the-art aircraft to monitor pollution. Although the offer wasn’t made public at the time, we learned earlier this year that the EPA politely declined. The agency claimed that it already had sufficient resources to monitor air pollution. This week’s inspector general report makes clear that the agency was wrong—NASA’s airplane would have been a critical addition to the equipment in the field.

The EPA’s explanation that it had enough monitors is suspect. If you really wanted to know what was happening in the air around Houston, why wouldn’t you want the best monitors available? I’ve never heard of a scientist who said no to additional data.

And here’s where things start to look still more nefarious. The EPA wasn’t the only agency checking air quality around Houston in 2017. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was too. But when the TCEQ learned that the EPA’s inspector general was investigating the response to Hurricane Harvey, the TCEQ closed up shop—it wouldn’t respond to written questions, canceled meetings, and refused to participate in the investigation. It’s almost as if someone didn’t want the public to know what happened in the aftermath of Harvey.

Who might that person be? It’s hard to say. But it should be noted that the man who reportedly resisted NASA’s offer of help, Michael Honeycutt, is both a senior scientists at the TCEQ and chair of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Honeycutt is one of the most controversial toxicologists in America (an admittedly short list). He once argued that tightening ground-level ozone limits would increase pollution-related deaths, a claim that cannot be substantiated, no matter how you twist the data.

Messing up air pollution monitoring is an error, one that happens when you funnel resources away from public health agencies. Stonewalling the government’s internal watchdog is another matter. The people tasked with monitoring environmental quality are trying to hide something, and the public deserves to know what that is.

Faker’s Dozen

President Trump believes you should either go big or go golfing. That’s why he’s no longer content to rescind two rules, or even eight rules, for every one his administration adopts. No, Trump wants to make it an even dozen.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with rescinding regulations, if it’s done wisely. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore oversaw one of the most ambitious reductions in federal rules since the birth of the administrative state more than a century ago. But Gore did it in a thoughtful way. He convened a staff of regulatory experts who looked for rules that were redundant, outdated, or superseded. If they had become nothing but red tape, the rules were removed from the records.

At no time did the administration set arbitrary goals, like removing 12 rules for every one adopted, because no one really knew how many unnecessary rules existed when the administration began the effort. In contrast, the Trump administration has picked a number out of the air, having no knowledge of how many rules can be rescinded without negatively impacting things like public health, workplace safety, national security, or the environment. Rather than using a scalpel, Trump is using a chainsaw. While wearing a blindfold. And using his nondominant hand.

EPA to Reporters: You’re Dumb

President Trump and the state of California don’t get along. Golden State officials undermined the president’s attempts to roll back auto emissions standards by striking a separate deal with automakers. In response, Trump did what Trump does: he trolled. On Twitter, he blamed California for wildfires, even though many of the fires occur on federally managed land. He has also tried to revoke the state’s long-standing authority to set auto emissions goals that are more ambitious than the national standards.

In September Trump’s EPA sent a letter threatening to withhold California’s federal highway funding over air quality issues. The letter claimed that California has 82 non-attainment areas—regions that are out of compliance with air quality standards—leaving 34 million people breathing unsafe air. It took journalists only a few hours to determine that those numbers were wrong. Really wrong: at the time of the letter, there were only 20 non-attainment areas in California.

We learned this week that the reason for the error was EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s reliance on a political appointee, rather than career experts, to develop the data. Former deputy air chief Clint Woods took it upon himself to count non-attainment areas, and he managed to double-count several places and mistakenly included sovereign tribal lands over which California has no authority.

When the news outlet E&E learned this week that Woods was the source of the mistake, the reporter asked the EPA for comment. That’s pretty standard journalistic practice. In response, EPA spokesperson Michael Abboud provided E&E with an anodyne quote, followed by this little gem: “I would also like to point out that this is a dumb story.”

In a sense, Abboud has a point. Rank incompetence and uninformed partisanship are banal and barely newsworthy during the Trump administration. However, the fact that a press officer can speak to a respected news outlet that way (on the record!) and not fear for his job shocks me. Abboud is a young staffer whose early work experience unfortunately has taken place in a culture of disrespect and unaccountability. It’s hard to blame him. But there are people above Abboud—namely, Associate Administrator Corry Schiermeyer—who at least appear to be grown-ups. Are they even paying attention anymore? It’s feels like the EPA Office of Public Affairs is being run out of a fraternity house.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.