Public Lab Research note

When $100,000 is not enough: how citizen data (could) relate to government regulation

by liz , gretchengehrke , reltub1 | October 01, 2015 02:01 01 Oct 02:01 | #12261 | #12261

October 29, 2013: The headline on reads: “Houston we have a problem: Six little inches of air will determine whether millions of dollars will be spent to clean up the air of millions of people in the Oil and Chemical Capital of the World.”

From the front porch of a single family home in Galena Park, Houston, the sights and sounds of industry come from all around: diesel trucks revving and idling, the clank of cranes setting down new sections of pipelines, the screeching brakes of trains loaded with Bakken Crude Oil, the low tones of container ship horns.

Below, Galena Park with industry in the background. Houston Chronicle, August 5, 2014:


Galena Park is a predominantly Hispanic, low-income area of approximately 3,000 households living in single family homes located along the Houston Ship Channel.

The community’s commercial strip, Clinton Drive, is also the thoroughfare for all truck traffic generated by the Port of Houston and the many facilities along that part of the Houston Ship Channel. On average, Clinton Drive see several thousand diesel trucks daily. The high traffic roadways and petrochemical refineries expose the under-resourced neighborhood to significant air quality impacts from fine particulate matter (PM2.5) even as economic tightening and technological advancements have reduced the number of jobs available to those who live nearest this industrial cluster.

Being that the Houston-Galveston region is such a heavily industrialized area, the EPA closely monitors air quality via an array of regulatory air monitoring stations. And although Galena Park has a PM2.5 regulatory monitor right on Clinton Drive, community members will quickly point out that it is outside of the city’s primary residential areas. Clinton Drive runs alongside the shipping channel by Galena Park about a mile to a mile and a half outside the residential area where the bulk of homes, the elementary, junior, and high schools, Early Head Start, and Recreation Center host most of the population. The sources of PM2.5 are closer to the neighborhood than the monitoring station is.


There are two Federal Regulatory Monitors at the Clinton Drive site, a pump which draws 16.67 liters of air per minute through a 3” intake continually over a 24 hour duration, and a filter which collects physical samples to be weighed. The City of Houston and the City of Galena Park have made specific landcover improvements in the vicinity of the regulatory monitor that were not made in the neighborhood, such as planting trees in the median of Clinton Drive and paving nearby parking lots, both of which have the effect of keeping the dust down. For these reasons, the Galena Park community has longstanding concerns that the regulatory monitor is not reflective of the airquality within the actual community.

EPA long term data for Galena Park shows annual averages of PM2.5 hovering at 11.6 micrograms per cubic meter, just below the annual threshold of 12 μg/m3, which would be a violation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) (, as authorized by the Clean Air Act

Clinton Drive’s hourly real time data is published here ( by the Texas Commision for Environmental Quality, accompanied with the following text:

PLEASE NOTE: This data has not been verified by the TCEQ and may change. This is the most current data, but it is not official until it has been certified by our technical staff. Data is collected from TCEQ ambient monitoring sites and may include data collected by other outside agencies. This data is updated hourly. All times shown are in local standard time unless otherwise indicated.

TCEQ data shows variability including peaks at times that seem to correspond with early AM diesel truck traffic and idling:


Notice PM 2.5 at the bottom row of parameters.

This hourly data shown here gives us a moment to consider that EPA 24 hour standards allow for much higher values of 35 μg/m3. This leads to a question often posed by fenceline communities, “Considering that some days the industrial campuses are not operating, and are releasing zero emissions, how many 0.0 μg/m3 and 35 μg/m3 days combine to create a 12 μg/m3 annual average? What is our actual health exposure to particulates?”

But back to the main story: If airborne PM2.5 were to have an average annual concentration above 12 μg/m3, then the federal EPA could assert authority, requiring Texas to draft a new plan to ensure that it will achieve the NAAQS standards, which would likely incorporate stricter emissions permits. Stricter emissions permits may require substantial technological upgrades or expensive operational changes, and therefore are generally met with resistance from industry groups; however, quoting Brian Butler, “Sometimes cost is the argument i hear from some industries about why they can’t do environmental improvements. But we have seen examples in the past where some industries have been able to recapture their investment in mitigation technologies through improved operational efficiency and reduction of loss of product.” Citizen groups also could take action to file against the Texas CEQ or the federal EPA for failure to take the actions available to each respective agency to uphold the Clean Air Act if the Houston air were not in attainment of the NAAQS (e.g. higher than 12 μg/m3 PM2.5 over a year).

Therefore, beginning in 2012, seeking to both understand and address air quality conditions in Galena Park, regional environmental advocates Air Alliance Houston (AAH) and international environmental health and justice non-profit Global Community Monitor (GCM) undertook a community health impact survey, a community mapping workshop, and a community air monitoring project.

Monitoring details

To skip ahead, we’ll present what data was actually collected by what methods: GCM and AAH conducted air monitoring over the course of a year for fine particulate matter and elemental carbon (a surrogate for diesel pollution) at four community-selected sites inside the Galena Park residential neighborhood. In total, over $100,000 was spent. The equipment and methods involve two MiniVol11 Tactical Air Samplers (TAS) and laboratory analysis of the MiniVol filters, 47 mm Teflon filter media which has been approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (link to 1999 study, and look out for FRM documentation links later in this post).


It is fair to ask, why would a community group invest so much money in MiniVols? Global Community Monitor reports that Quality Assurance Protocols for the MiniVol have been approved by the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the State of Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. There is a monitoring project underway in Oregon with a DEQ approved plan, with one minor note that “because of the lower flow rate of the MiniVol, the minimum detection limits (MDLs) will be higher.” Discussions are underway with some of the State of California’s Air Districts and EPA Region 9 that would mandate follow-up research to be conducted by the agencies if community submitted data from MiniVols or buckets indicated levels exceeding regulatory standards. Additionally, MiniVols are accessible because many state and county health departments own them and in some cases have loaned them to community projects, as in Albuquerque New Mexico to the South Western Organizing Project (SWOP).

Exhaustive details of the monitoring protocol excerpted from the final report issued by AAH can be found here:

Interestingly, in the Galena Park study, there was no statistical difference between community-collected MiniVol data and the TCEQ’s data. Stepping aside from the long standing debates between how government averages are calculated over periods of year(s) (for both pollution and human health response to exposure levels) versus how communities experience hotspots / peak events, the statistical similarity means that to some extent the MiniVols were on point. And yes, the community and several doctors continue to be concerned about the high peak levels of particulate matter. But here is where this post takes a different turn because those issues are not what the EPA addressed in their response to AAH’s submission:

The EPA wrote a response titled “Responses to Significant Comments 2012 Annual PM2.5 NAAQS December 17, 2014”, in their document “PM 2.5 Desig RTC EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0918-0337-1.PDF,” Section 3.2.4. EPA Region VI. The following is reprinted from page 56 of 68:


Comment: The commenters questioned whether the monitoring data obtained at the [EPA] Clinton Drive Monitor site is representative for the Galena Park community and submitted monitoring data gathered from five monitoring sites operated by Air Alliance Houston at various locations within the community (see Figure 2 below). The commenters believe the Air Alliance monitoring data demonstrated that the Clinton Drive [EPA] monitor was not representative of area air quality and that the area could be in violation of the NAAQS.

EPA Response: We first note that we must consider all valid data within the relevant 3- year time frame that is collected in conformance with the Federal Reference Methods and siting requirements in our designation decision. As discussed below, the Clinton Drive monitoring site meets these requirements and therefore, must be considered. The location of the Clinton Drive monitor conforms to all applicable siting criteria, as set forth in 40 CFR Part 58, Appendix D and E, and has been approved by the EPA as part of TCEQ’s most recent Annual Monitoring Network Plan and 5-year Monitoring Network Assessment. The Clinton Drive monitor is approximately 1.5 miles from Galena Park, as shown in Figure 2. At Clinton Drive, TCEQ operates PM2.5 Federal Reference Method (FRM) and non-FRM continuous monitors.

With regard to whether the data collected by Air Alliance Houston indicates a violation, Region 6 evaluated the monitoring data submitted by the commenter. Approximately 29 discrete samples were collected in the Galena Park community over a 16-month period from May 2012 through September 2013, thus the data is limited in scope compared to the data collected by regulatory monitors over a 3-year period and subject to data completion criteria. Additionally, these data were also not monitored and collected according to the requirements of the federal reference method for PM2.5 found in 40 CFR part 50, Appendix L. Our designations must be based on valid 3-year design values, and even if the monitoring data submitted by the commenters fully complied with the siting and data quality criteria, there are not sufficient data on which to derive a valid, 3-year design value.

Therefore, these data do not affect our decision to designate the area as Unclassifiable/ Attainment.

End Quote. Short story: despite the alignment in data, the EPA’s dismissal of the project because the tool and methods were not FEM/FRM (see below) appears to be undercutting the EPA’s own rhetoric of funding and working with EJ communities collecting citizen science data.

Oh and in case anyone’s looking for 40 CFR part 50, Appendix L, check page 84 of 91 in or here


In response to the response given to the AAH Galena Park monitoring project by the EPA, Brian Butler of AAH presented the above poster at the July 2015 EPA Community Air Monitoring Training workshop, and says,

”I wrote the title “What’s the Use?” as a double entendre expressing the futility of collecting data that won’t have impact and to also pose a honest question to the EPA.”

As writers of this post, we are wondering out loud about this kind of response from the EPA. During a time where the EPA awards grants to conduct citizen science under their Environmental Justice program area. and much time and effort is then spent by communities collecting data on environmental quality, a dismissive response like this seems patronizing and like an opportunity was missed for more collaborative environmental management.

NB: Please see a quick background on the EPA prepared for this blog post here:

Where does citizen data fit in the realm of EPA assessment and enforcement?

Not an exhaustive list, but the biggies:


Federal Reference Method & Federal Equivalent Method

drumroll please..."And at last we come to FRMs and FEMs"

FRM: Federal Reference Method FEM: Federal Equivalent Method

Title 40, Part 53 of the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR Part 53): Title 40 CFR 53.1 - Definitions:

Definition of FRM: Federal reference method (FRM) means a method of sampling and analyzing the ambient air for an air pollutant that is specified as a reference method in an appendix to part 50 of this chapter, or a method that has been designated as a reference method in accordance with this part; it does not include a method for which a reference method designation has been canceled in accordance with § 53.11 or § 53.16.

Definition of FEM: Federal equivalent method (FEM) means a method for measuring the concentration of an air pollutant in the ambient air that has been designated as an equivalent method in accordance with this part; it does not include a method for which an equivalent method designation has been canceled in accordance with § 53.11 or § 53.16.

Definitions don’t quite capture “purpose”, so although it may seem obvious, let’s rhetorically ask why we have FRMs and FEMs? First and foremost, we have FRMs and FEMs because we want the highest quality data to inform us about our environment. The EPA also has liability to consider, and wants to ensure that the data underlying its assertions or actions are highly defensible. This is logical from a regulatory standpoint and an enforcement standpoint.

Issues arise, however, as we return to Appendix L and read that FRMs specify branded and trademarked technologies and list individual manufacturers of the devices needed to assess air quality.


Restating this, the current status is that to collect regulatory quality environmental data, one must use blackboxed, patented products. Many patented technologies are commercialized to sell at prices that are inaccessible to most citizens, and thus there is a huge financial barrier disabling the public from gathering data and producing "valid" information. But this is the type of tech development (closed source, patented, expensive) funded by the EPA and established as the standard for environmental assessment. Requiring FRMs or FEMs for even the lowest screening-level assessments unnecessarily impede the ability of citizens to collaborate with environmental agencies in the monitoring of their local environments because FRMs and FEMs are too costly and time-consuming for persons other than official government personnel to perform.

Before even getting to phase where products are named and sold, there is a research and development phase yielding results on how technology works that could be published openly. There are many open source innovators eager to collaborate with the EPA that are hindered simply by closed publishing. In one anecdote from 2013 and 2014, the EPA excitingly came very close to supporting this space when they ran an assessment of low cost, air quality sensors being used in the DIY and citizen science communities, and published the summary results in the Air Sensor Guidebook But, under the, the EPA was able to request that companies send in their devices for testing, perform an incredible amount of very valuable comparative testing, yet not release any of the actual data that could help citizen innovators learn how technology in this space was performing and spur open source innovation.

Why does the EPA distribute and use funds for closed source development? In some ways, it is a result of a worldview that holds that patents spur technological development through the future profits available to those who invest in research and development. But open source, commons-based peer production offers another path for spurring innovation.

Consequences result from this patent regime: as things currently stand, there’s simply no way for citizens and government to speak the same language on air quality. In an age of open data, we argue that “gov can dish it but can’t take it” (Barry, 2012). But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Air Alliance Houston is concerned that their time and money, and that of other grassroots groups, is being wasted because there is no pathway for community-collected data to have impact at the enforcement level. As Brian Butler writes, this is a serious issue of the EPA contradicting itself, or worse, patronizing EJ communities through offering citizen science grants just to go through the motions of a potemkin process. Clearly, technology is a fast moving space, and we are in an awkward period where the EPA’s proverbial door is opened to citizen data, but it can’t come in.

We need pathways for citizen and community collected data to connect to agency regulatory action

Perhaps modeled after QAPP levels, evidence levels could be established, and a place for screening to prompt further action. A suggestion along these lines has already been made in the EPA’s 2014 Air Sensor Guidebook report, though it is incomplete as it mostly discusses relative standard deviations that could be appropriate and does not include a pathway for driving action or response from the government at any level.

Here are some larger ideas around supporting innovation and citizen <-> government collaboration that have been informed by positions articulated by Mathew Lippincot @mathew :

  • results from federally funded research must be published in journals that do not require paid subscriptions to access, and the data from the study be published in open formats
  • federally funded tool development should not be patentable
  • additional federal funds for commercializing patented tech should not be awarded

Imagine with us for a moment how this might play out ... the EPA might become a steward of open source reference designs for environmental assessment technology. EPA-stewarded designs might specify performance criteria rather than branded and patented technologies. Data captured by these new “Open Federal Reference Methods” might be stored in open formats, with no specialized or closed source technology required to access it. Technology for environmental monitoring gets better, cheaper, and more accessible. Communities and agencies begin to speak the same language, cease wasting time arguing and move forward together on understanding and improving environmental quality.

In the US alone, thousands of individuals and communities are exploring open source environmental monitoring and are hungry to collaborate with the EPA. In the final tally, what’s at stake is human health and our combined abilities as community plus government to ensure environmental quality.


What EPA Regions are the previous 4 examples of citizen enforcement? EPA's attention is a limited resource, and EPA's attention in region 6 is heavily divided.

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Good point @eustatic. The previous examples are from EPA regions 9 and 10 (west coast). However there is also activity (mentioned briefly above) in New Mexico which is EPA region 6—same as Texas.

EPA enforcement in Tonawanda was a direct outcome of the Obama administration. I would suspect that there has been very little (or none?) since the current administration came into office.

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☝️ Right on point Jackie, thank you for highlighting the context around agency actions, which seems to also include how much budget the agency has to work with

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