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This new air quality map will show you how much harmful pollution is in North Texas

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 9/18/2020 By Haley Samsel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The Dallas-Fort Worth region is no stranger to disputes over air pollution stemming from industrial plants. In just the past two years, groups in south Dallas, Midlothian and Mansfield have fought the expansion of the cement and concrete industries, citing negative health consequences such as increased asthma symptoms and higher incidences of cancer.

During these debates, activists across DFW have shared a common complaint: the lack of air quality monitoring data in the areas where companies produce the most particulate matter pollution, or microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the air, such as dust, soot and smoke.

If particles are small enough, they can reach the lungs, heart or brain and cause serious health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA maintains six monitors in North Texas, which environmentalists argue is not enough to measure how air quality differs within communities.

SharedAirDFW, a regional air monitoring network led by the University of Texas-Dallas and North Texas environmental activism group Downwinders at Risk, hopes to address the scarcity of information by deploying more than 100 air pollution monitors across the region in the next two years.

“We’re providing a better alternative to the status quo that the state is providing right now,” said Jim Schermbeck, the director of Downwinders at Risk. “This site does more and is more helpful to regular folks than anything out there right now … It’s a citizen empowerment tool.”

An interactive map, launched this week by UTD physics professor David Lary and his students, displays real-time air monitoring results from monitors deployed by both SharedAir volunteers and the EPA. Residents can also view data from PurpleAir monitors that are available for purchase online and use WiFi networks to report particulate matter pollution.

“We’re using the same machine learning technology to calibrate our monitors that NASA uses for its satellites,” Lary said in a statement. “We can take accurate measurements every few seconds and stream the data in real-time to capture the air quality at a specific place over time.”

The network, which originated with an unsuccessful grant application to the National Science Foundation, has the support of government partners like the city of Plano and Dallas County as well as the Dallas County college system and Paul Quinn College, where former instructor Evelyn Mayo published research showing that the majority of industrial facilities in Dallas are located south of I-30 and the Trinity River.

Each partner in the network has their own motivations for participating in the project, Schermbeck said. With their 44 monitors, Plano officials will focus on figuring out stoplight sequences that will reduce pollution from vehicles. The Dallas County college system wants to use the air quality data in its science curriculum.

Activists like Schermbeck seek more information to back up their assertions that the pollution burden is too heavy on neighborhoods like those in south and west Dallas, which are home to large communities of color.

“We start out, at least on our side with Downwinders, by putting the monitors in places that are determined by public health, not by public funding of transportation,” Schermbeck said, referring to smog limits that states must meet to receive federal highway funding. “Our interest is environmental justice.”

Right now, only one SharedAirDFW monitor has been deployed in Tarrant County, near the Charles H. Haws Athletic Center on Henderson Street in Fort Worth. The remaining seven monitors that have been deployed are split between Plano, Mesquite, Richardson and the south Dallas community of Joppa, where residents have clashed with city officials over the removal and cleanup of a toxic waste dump of roof shingles known as Shingle Mountain.

As part of the activist coalition Southern Sector Rising, Schermbeck has been heavily involved in the efforts to pressure Dallas to clean up Shingle Mountain. By January, 11 more monitors will be deployed in Joppa, with another 11 set to be installed in west Dallas sometime next year, he said.

From there, Downwinders at Risk hopes to place monitors in and around Midlothian near the end of 2021. Laura Hunt, a Midlothian pediatrician who has fought cement company Holcim’s bid to increase the amount of carbon monoxide it can release into the air, has often been frustrated with the lack of air monitors near the three major cement plants in town.

Hunt said the activism group she co-founded, Midlothian Breathe, would prefer for the monitors to be installed sooner but will not hold their breath waiting for them.

“We will be very grateful if/when they materialize for us,” Hunt said. “In the meantime, we will definitely try to get more PurpleAir monitors in place.”

The launch of the network has been an “arduous process,” Schermbeck said, and it would have been sped up significantly by the National Science Foundation grant. Still, the SharedAirDFW partners were able to cobble together enough grant money to provide what Schermbeck believes is a public utility that will become routine in the future.

“It empowers you on a personal level, and I think it can also be a big difference in how we shape policy from here on out,” Schermbeck said. “To ignore the data is folly. From this point forward, you kind of have to take this into account if you’re serious about air quality and environmental justice in Dallas-Fort Worth.”

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