NASA Study to Monitor Air Pollution After Hurricane Harvey Cancelled

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NASA Study to Monitor Air Pollution After Hurricane Harvey Cancelled

In or around September 2018, following Hurricane Harvey, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were prevented from collecting air quality data in the Houston area. The scientists, based in NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission program, proposed flying a D-8 aircraft equipped with air samplers over the city to identify possible chemical releases. That proposal was reportedly opposed by officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

EPA’s deputy regional administrator for Texas, David Gray, reportedly told NASA scientists that the agency was already monitoring air quality in the Houston area and was “hesitant” to have other scientists “collect additional information that overlaps with our existing efforts.” The director of toxicology at TCEQ, Michael Honeycutt, subsequently expressed concern that the NASA data would not be “useful.”  David Gray agreed and indicated that “EPA . . . will not plan to ask NASA to this mission.” In response, the chief scientist in NASA’s Earth Science Division, Paul Newman, noted that “NASA does NOT need EPA approval” and would go ahead with the flight. However, he was over-ruled by the director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, Michael Freilich, who cancelled the flight due to the concerns expressed by EPA and TCEQ.

UpdateOn March 6, 2019, Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson, Lizzie Fletcher, and Mikie Sherrill commenced an investigation into the cancelled flight. In a letter to NASA, EPA, and TCEQ, the Representatives expressed concern that “[i]nstead of gathering the most accurate air quality data possible, State and Federal officials apparently decided they would rather not know about potential toxic chemical releases.” The representatives asked NASA, EPA, and TCEQ to provide copies of all documents relating to the decision to cancel the flight.
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