13 Investigates: Areas that may need it most see no COVID-related air improvement

DEER PARK, Texas (KTRK) -- When she was looking for homes in Deer Park, Jana Pellusch purposely picked a location just far enough away so she wouldn't see the nearby industrial plants.

"If you're much closer, you can see the flaring," Pellusch told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "You can hear the flare also because when that gas goes out, it makes a lot of vibration."

As stay-at-home orders across the world went into effect, the Internet was flooded with images from some of Europe's biggest cities, like Milan, Paris and Madrid, showing less concentrations of air pollution.

In the U.S., deserted New York City has been experiencing clear skies, and NASA said earlier this month that satellites detected a 30 percent drop in air pollution over the Northeastern U.S.

Pellusch's neighborhood hasn't seen the same improvements.

When Dr. Gunnar Schade, an associate professor at Texas A&M University's Atmospheric Sciences Department, saw the satellite images, he said he was intrigued but found that the Houston area isn't feeling the same air quality relief.

"Houston is also unique in the sense that, historically, it has a very dense air monitor network, not as dense as it used to be," he said. "But it's still much denser than in most of the rest of the U.S."

Schade started analyzing air quality in Houston after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order for the county on March 24. He looked at the state's air quality data this year through April 8.

His research specifically looked at levels of nitrogen oxide, a common pollutant that can worsen asthma or cause respiratory issues, such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing.

Houston has dropped levels of the pollutant around its empty highways, but neighborhoods along the ship channel, where industrial work hasn't slowed down, aren't seeing the same decrease.

"When you look at the actual on the ground data, it doesn't look quite as fantastic," Schade said.

He said the primary drivers of pollutants along the ship channel aren't necessarily the traffic, but the dozens of plants that line the channel, fuel the economy and keep the country moving.

The lack of improvement, while understandable, also comes at a time when environmental regulators are waiving or relaxing some compliance and enforcement rules.

In late March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would waive some enforcement measures if, "on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic." Some environmental advocates called it an "open license to pollute." The agency denied the claim.

Although the state agency that regulates air quality said it hasn't relaxed limitations on the amount of air emissions a plant can produce, it is providing some regulatory relief in response to the pandemic.

"TCEQ will consider exercising its discretion to not bring enforcement actions for such violations on a case-by-case basis," Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairman Jon Niermann said in a letter earlier this month.

In Harris County, 21 facilities regulated by the TCEQ have already asked for "enforcement discretion," including waiving labeling requirements for shipments or asking for extensions on certain reporting requirements. The state agency granted all the requests in Harris County except for one of them.

Statewide, 110 facilities have asked for waivers since mid-March. The agency has denied 14 across the state.

"It may be inappropriate to pursue enforcement for violations that were unavoidable due to the pandemic or where compliance would create an unreasonable risk of transmitting COVID-19 or otherwise impede an appropriate response to the pandemic," Niermann said.

Still, Dr. Grace Tee Lewis, an epidemiologist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said areas with less enforcement action tend to see more pollution activity.

With COVID-19 affecting patients' respiratory systems, it's important to maintain a strong stance on protecting the public from air pollutants, including through enforcement, said Tee Lewis.

"When air quality is worse for those susceptible groups, then that makes their ability to respond to illnesses more difficult," Lewis said. "It's not fair to them that they live on a daily basis with the burden of their environmental situation and now have to be even more susceptible to this pandemic."

East Harris County Manufacturers Association, which includes more than 130 manufacturing companies, said in a statement to 13 Investigates that it is committed to compliance and that "enforcement discretion should only be sought when absolutely necessary."

"We understand our responsibility in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. We must maintain safe operations and protect public health while producing critical products that meet America's supply needs," the statement reads.

The products include life-saving medicine, medical-grade personal protective equipment, disinfectants, fuel and chlorine.

But, as the rest of the nation and world experience larger jumps in air quality, Harris County neighborhoods near industrial sites are left waiting for the same.

"It doesn't seem like there's a huge change from before to after the (stay-at-home) order," Schade said.

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