Houston is no stranger to industrial operations, and along with many industrial facilities come a wealth of dangerous pollutants. Carcinogenic byproducts leak from Houston’s many petrochemical facilities and toxic dust clouds the air near concrete batch plants.
The health effects of these pollutants burden Houstonians unequally. Time and again, heavily polluting facilities are disproportionately placed in communities of color, continuing a long history of environmental racism seen in Houston and across the country.
But there is a glimmer of hope. When a new permit is filed, there is a short window of opportunity for residents to raise their concerns to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which approves permit applications for new or increased industrial pollution. By submitting public comment or voicing concerns in public meetings, people in the community can influence TCEQ’s decision to approve the permit.
Technology to help people take action against air pollution permits
Environmental justice organizations like Air Alliance Houston (AAH) help communities become aware of proposed polluters in their neighborhoods and navigate the public engagement process during these crucial periods of action.
Due to the high volume of permit applications, AAH focuses on facilities with substantial public health impact and enough affected residents to mount a viable public engagement campaign. For previous campaigns, this has involved a time-intensive process of closely monitoring the TCEQ’s public notices search page to identify notices of greatest concern and developing custom mailing materials and address lists.
To streamline this process and enhance their ability to quickly identify the notices of highest concern, AAH worked with us to create AirMail.
How AirMail works
The AirMail process kicks off with an automated process to collect permit information from TCEQ. This information is stored as a permit notice PDF, so our system parses each PDF to determine public action dates, addresses, and other key information. Next, the notice is connected with facility information from separate TCEQ searches. Finally, each notice is augmented with the number of affected residences and state legislator information using geospatial queries and third-party APIs.
With this information in hand, the notices are ready to be displayed on an interactive dashboard. The AirMail website is designed to help community organizers:
- Explore pollution permit notices and determine where to take action
- Kickstart community outreach by generating postcards and a list of nearby residences
The primary dashboard on AirMail displays new pollution permit notices in an interactive map view. Organizers can filter by industry type, notice type, custom date ranges, as well as sort by the number of impacted residences or proximity to the public action deadline.
If you click on a specific notice, the site provides details about the facility, the public actions that are available for participation, and a slider to view the number of residences surrounding the facility. Authenticated users may also download an address list of residential addresses and generate mailing materials auto-filled with key information for residents to take action.
Although the address download and mailing template features are only available for organizers, the majority of the site is open for the public to browse. Any user can view available public actions and contact information for state legislators. The TCEQ is required to hold a public meeting on a permit application if a state legislator from the impacted area requests one.