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TCEQ to deploy new air monitoring equipment

Monday, Oct. 21, 2019 – Enhancements will include vans capable of rapid response, real-time detection
ContactAndrew Keese
After Hrs512-239-5000

TCEQ is significantly enhancing its air monitoring capabilities, thanks to new equipment funded by the Texas Legislature and savings from the agency’s 2019 budget.

“TCEQ is continuously looking for ways to improve public access to air quality information, particularly during emergencies,” says Chairman Jon Niermann. “This new monitoring equipment enables TCEQ to raise the bar again, by allowing a more complete and timely view of air quality, which is critical during an emergency response.”

As sought by TCEQ, the 86th Texas Legislature allowed the agency to equip up to three vehicles with real-time, mobile air monitoring technology—equipment it did not previously possess—while budget savings allows for the installation of three new automated gas chromatograph (autoGC) air monitoring stations in the Houston area and the purchase of new handheld air monitors that can make specific benzene readings.

“This new equipment will expand TCEQ’s ability to rapidly assess air quality, particularly around petrochemical facilities, but it will also help with daily monitoring of ambient conditions, including the Houston ship channel area,” says Toby Baker, the agency’s executive director. “We want to get better at responding to natural disasters and emergency response events by upgrading our real-time monitoring capabilities so local officials are able to make the best possible decisions to protect public health. But we also want to better monitor the ambient air around the ship channel daily through the addition of three new autoGC air monitoring stations.”

While still in the planning and development stage, the 2020 budget includes $947,500 in one-time funding for mobile monitoring equipment. The funds will be used to upgrade two existing vans with mass spectrometers that can sample in real-time for a broad target pollutant list, expandable to more than 1,000 compounds, including benzene. In addition, funding will provide for the purchase of a third vehicle with complimentary technology that focuses on a narrower pollutant list that will also include benzene. These vehicles will be deployed to areas in the state when there is the need for real-time mobile monitoring.

“The significant improvements that we are making to our air monitoring capabilities will help the agency provide the most accurate data available,” says Commissioner Emily Lindley. “The improvements to this data will help with critical situational awareness for local officials and emergency response personnel.”

Between the three vans, sampling times will vary based on the number of compounds being analyzed, but can be as quick as one to four seconds per compound, making them suitable for in-transit monitoring. Previously TCEQ’s vans were equipped with instruments only capable of collecting data while stationary and required a time-consuming process to deploy and calibrate. The newly equipped vans will provide the ability for rapid survey assessments, allowing the agency to quickly sample pollutant hot spots, map air concentrations in an area, and identify locations for sampling over longer durations.

In response to an agency request, the Legislative Budget Board and Gov. Greg Abbott approved the reallocation of unused 2019 funds to purchase three new autoGC air monitoring stations.

The new autoGC air monitors, capable of continuous measurement of 46 volatile organic compounds, are currently planned for the Pasadena, Baytown, and Channelview communities. Efforts are under way to identify locations, acquire access to property, and complete site construction activities with monitoring anticipated to begin in the spring of 2020. The data from the new monitors will be available on a near real-time basis to the public through TCEQ’s website once they are operational.

“From my experience in utilizing monitoring equipment in the field as an employee of the Radioactive Materials Division here at TCEQ, I understand the need for a comprehensive monitoring approach,” says Commissioner Bobby Janecka. “I am thrilled TCEQ continues to be a leader in utilizing an array of monitoring equipment to protect human health and the environment.”

Finally, the agency was able to purchase 15 hand-held air monitors capable of assessing cumulative volatile organic compounds and providing benzene-specific readings down to 10 parts per billion. Associated hardware and software will provide investigators the ability to report data directly from the field through real-time uploading. This new technology represents a substantial upgrade in equipment, especially for use in future emergency response activities.

The hand-held air monitors, called UltraRAEs, have been distributed to TCEQ’s Amarillo, Dallas/Fort Worth, Tyler, El Paso, Midland, Beaumont, Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Harlingen, and Laredo regional offices, as well as to TCEQ’s Monitoring Division in Austin.