Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a community air monitoring training at its Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina. Upon getting an invite for this training I originally considered showcasing the Houston Clean Air Network website and app. However, after reviewing the EPA response to AAH’s comments relating to Houston’s PM2.5 designation, it was clear that we needed to use the training as an opportunity to ask the EPA an honest question: What’s the use?
The designation comments we submitted were based on the results of a two-year project exploring whether the data obtained from an EPA Regulatory Monitor (RM) in Galena Park was representative of the air quality of the nearby community. The first phase of the project involved a community health impact survey that identified environmental quality and health as major community concerns. The second phase of the project involved a two-day community mapping workshop in which residents discussed and identified community resources, environmental hazards, and five “hot spots” where they wanted additional air monitoring.
After the mapping workshop, AAH began monitoring PM2.5 levels at those five sites, two of which were an early head start office and the community resource center. The results of our air monitoring showed consistently higher levels of PM2.5 than the RM. Some residents suspected that this may be because of a lot of work done directly around the RM. For instance, many of the parking lots surrounding the RM were repaved and dozens of trees were planted directly adjacent to the RM.
After completing what we felt was a fairly sophisticated citizen science air monitoring project we confidently submitted our results to the EPA as official comments concerning Houston’s PM2.5 designation. The response we got back was quite insulting. We won’t quote EPA verbatim, but we were told that our data was “limited in scope,” did not meet “Federal Reference Method” standards, and “therefore, these data do not affect [the] decision to designate.” After spending countless hours and resources on this project, we felt dismissed by this response.
So my poster for the training, which was a requirement for everyone invited, was simply titled: “What’s the Use?” My point was that the EPA was talking out of both sides of its mouth, on one hand claiming to support citizen science and on the other, giving no respect to citizen generated data.
We believe that in addition to verbally encouraging citizens to collect data, EPA should be considering that data in its decision making processes. If citizens learn that the data they gather will be afforded no weight by the EPA, we can expect the flow of citizen data to quickly dry up.