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Environmental Justice Requires Adequate Air Quality Monitoring System

March 9, 2021, 9:00 AM

The cornerstone of our nation’s system for protecting the health of its people and land is managing and regulating pollution of the air, water, and land. But regulation can only be effective if pollution sources comply with environmental laws, and are robustly monitored to ensure they are doing so. When they don’t, overburdened low- income communities and communities of color suffer the most.

Unfortunately, we already know that compliance is spotty, and that many regulated facilities routinely violate environmental requirements. Noncompliance rates of 25% are common, and rates are even higher for pollution sources with the biggest health effects; violation rates for significant sources of air pollution reach a staggering 80%. And many violations—from leaking tanks, unlit flares, smokestacks, wastewater treatment plants, spills or outright dumping—go unreported. One expert believes that nearly 40% of drinking water violations go unreported.

These rampant violations translate into impaired air and surface water quality, contaminated drinking water, and human exposure to dangerous chemicals. Like the burdens of Covid-19, the brunt is borne by low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). These communities are disproportionately exposed to all types of pollution sources, with exposures even higher in neighborhoods on the fence line of “super-polluting” facilities that are responsible for the lion’s share of environmental pollution.

Misses in Monitoring Network

And now there is increasing evidence that the same sad pattern applies to our system of monitoring air pollution. A Reuters report found that the national network of air pollution monitoring devices “has routinely missed major toxic releases and day-to-day pollution dangers.”

The report offers illustrations of such failures in low-income and BIPOC communities:

  • A series of explosions at a south Philadelphia refinery released 350 tons of hazardous chemicals, generating an enormous fireball visible to a weather satellite, but the nearest federal monitor was not operating, and the system recorded no significant pollution.
  • Community monitors in California’s Imperial Valley reported particulate levels that sometimes exceeded the notorious pollution in Beijing, but government monitors weren’t programmed to detect such high levels and gave readings 60% lower.

State and local environmental agencies maintain and operate a national network of 3,900 air monitoring devices overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency—roughly one monitor for each thousand square miles of the 3.8 million square mile U.S. land mass. About 120 million Americans, more than a third of the population, live in counties that have no EPA pollution monitors to measure concentrations of deadly small particle air pollution.

System’s Shortcomings

The system is underfunded and was originally designed to detect air pollutants of concern in the 1970s, such as acid rain and ozone pollution, and is “not equipped to meet current pollution threats” such as toxic compounds and particulate matter.

The placement of monitors is a serious challenge. State regulators often have wide discretion over where to place monitors. They may decide to encourage economic development by placing monitors in cleaner areas to keep readings low enough to allow new construction projects that might be limited by high pollution readings, and there is evidence that local regulators strategically avoid pollution hot spots. This may serve the needs of industry and local economic development, but concealing localized impacts puts people at risk and perpetuates environmental injustice.

Another pitfall is that monitors may be inaccurate or improperly operated, in some cases recording pollution levels that vary wildly from audit monitors placed beside them. One audit found that nearly half of the monitors measuring deadly fine particulates did not meet federal accuracy standards.

The system’s shortcomings have serious public health consequences. Inaccurate monitoring data may confuse or mislead the public when it is reported to the public, and lead to bad decisions when it is used to inform regulatory actions such as permits allowing harmful facilities to operate or deciding whether to take enforcement actions.

One obvious solution is to improve and update the EPA’s monitoring system. But improving the system could be difficult, time-consuming, and costly. A 2013 study recommended better monitoring near major polluting infrastructure such as transportation corridors, sampling for more pollutants, and doing “more urban field studies to better understand block-to-block variability in air quality.” For the most part those recommendations have not been implemented.

Low-Cost, Easy-to-Use Alternative

Another approach is suggested by one industry publication that announces a “new paradigm” for air pollution monitoring using “lower-cost, easy-to-use, portable air pollution monitors (sensors) that provide high-time resolution data in near real-time.”Incorporating these tools into the monitoring system could increase its effectiveness.

Community groups, especially in low-income and BIPOC communities can use these tools to help them better understand their environments, and document hot spots or exposure greater than the national monitoring system shows. The Reuters report found that readings from community-based monitors “often revealed pollution spikes and hot spots the EPA network never captured.”

Data generated through this process can provide a richer understanding of environmental conditions and enable the public to play a more active role in environmental governance by prodding government action that puts pressure on polluting companies, by documenting environmental problems and risks to people’s health and the environment. A community science approach would help meet the staggering logistical challenges of monitoring pollution across a vast land mass, and providing nuanced and precise measurements of local conditions, even on a block-to-block level.

Community science can provide a path for low-income and BIPOC communities to advance environmental justice and take more control of their environmental destinies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs,Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

David Coursen is a former EPA attorney who worked in the EPA Office of General Counsel as its environmental justice coordinator. He is currently a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency’s progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.

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