How community air monitoring projects provide a data-driven model for the future

Nicoyia Hurt, EDF Oil and Gas Health Policy Intern, contributed to this post

Downtown Los Angeles with misty morning smog.

This month marks the one year anniversary since the residents in Imperial County California did something pretty amazing.

After experiencing some of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state, the community got together to launch the IVAN air monitoring project– a community website that provides real time air quality data collected from 40 different pollution monitors across the county.

Frances Nicklen said the air monitors make a huge difference to her community.

"The placement of these 40 air monitors throughout the Imperial Valley will be very beneficial so that the people can make educated decisions to protect their health and that of their families," she told the Comite Civico Del Valle. “We only have one valley, and we have to live here, and we need to make it a better place for all of our residents.”

As a result of the IVAN project, an entire community now has access to real-time pollution data that can identify the region’s largest sources of harmful emissions.

Even local air quality regulators are using it to help inform their policy decisions, demonstrating that community-led science projects can, and do, drive real change.

What’s next?

Several companies are now developing lower-cost air pollution monitors that can collect real-time air quality data 24-hours a day with more precision, and can detect a wider array of pollutants than ever – factors which can help propel better environmental controls. These technological advancements are incredibly encouraging, and – as is clear with the IVAN project – regulators, operators and community groups alike are taking advantage of this evolution in environmental technology.

Communities with poor air quality – like those in Los Angeles – appear to be on the verge of getting a new set of tools to help aid in pollution reduction.

Why Los Angeles?

In 2015, NASA used data from satellites and 14 separate ground-based pollution monitors to confirm high levels of methane (climate pollution) in the Los Angeles region. This reiterated the findings of other studies which found that previous estimates of air pollution have been too low, and oil and gas extraction may be releasing twice as much methane and other harmful pollutants than previously thought.

What these studies didn’t tell us however, is exactly which facilities the pollution is coming from, and how harmful these emissions are to communities living in this region.

That’s the gap new monitoring technology can help close.

Continuous air pollution monitors can provide real-time data about a vast array of pollutants at a much lower price than the traditional technologies. In turn, these monitors can alert local residents, governmental agencies and facility operators to problems about sites that may be emitting toxic gases.

Similarly, mobile technology (devices mounted to cars and airplanes) can collect regional information from a wide variety of sources, helping to pinpoint and aggregate information about problematic pollution. Together these technologies can locate problems at individual oil and gas sites, or uncover pollution patterns at the neighborhood level and identify hyper-localized hot spots.

New legislation demonstrates this information can and should be used to develop local air quality improvement plans. In short, better data can set the stage for new levels of engagement and influence change in a positive direction, and efforts are under way to make that happen.

There’s no denying that the oil and gas industry in California has supplied a huge amount of goods, services and money into the state’s economy. At the same time, it’s clear that leaks and poor environmental performance at oil and gas sites, especially where sites are located within a few feet of people’s homes and businesses, can drastically impact quality of life.

Fortunately, California’s technology boom has revolutionized the way we hail a ride or rent a home. If used appropriately, it can also help create a safer, cleaner environment.

 

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