June 26, 2019

Letter from Congress to EPA regarding the decision made by TCEQ and EPA not to accept help from NASA after Hurricane Harvey in order to  prioritize its appearance in the press over public safety in Houston.

Excerpts below. 

Click HERE to read the full letter.

“It appears that EPA acted willfully to frustrate the Committee’s constitutionally-mandated oversight responsibilities on this issue. We are disturbed by EPA’ s refusals to cooperate with our inquiries and its refusals to explain its actions in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Harvey was devastating for Houston and its surrounding communities; the Committee requested information from EPA in good faith. The Committee’s interest in this topic has discrete policy relevance that should concern all Americans: ensuring that federal agencies are deploying all available resources to inform the public and protect public health in the wake of a natural disaster. EPA’ s refusal to respond to Congress on this issue suggests EPA may also fail to learn from its mistakes after Harvey and take more appropriate steps in the future.”…

“In its letter to the Committee responding to our request for documents, TCEQ asserted that it coordinated with EPA Region 6 to turn away the NASA DC-8 flight because the flight would not produce scientifically helpful data. However, NASA and TCEQ documents indicate that, in the words of one TCEQ official, “the flight was scrapped for reasons unrelated to science.” 7
Internal NASA email chains document that, in fact, EPA and TCEQ officials were “worried that NASA will run with this dataset to the press and in the process, make EPA and TCEQ look bad.” They describe TCEQ Director Michael Honeycutt as noting that TCEQ had “received numerous open records requests and that he sees this as opening up his agency to more negative scrutiny. “8 Another email chain described “consternation owing to media reports”9 at EPA and TCEQ.”

“However, EPA and TCEQ still refused NASA’s offer of assistance. EPA and TCEQ stated unambiguously to NASA that they did not wish the flight over Houston to take place.15 This decision to turn away the NASA DC-8 flight obstructed information-gathering that would have helped Houstonians, particularly those in low-income communities near industrial facilities,make decisions about how to protect their health during an environmental crisis. 16 We have reason to believe that had the DC-8 mission flown, it would have provided evidence that EPA’s public declarations about air quality after the storm were overly optimistic. Air monitoring data from multiple other sources, including a City of Houston mobile monitoring unit and contractors for the Environmental Defense Fund, showed alarming concentrations of benzene near industrial facilities in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane that were not reported by EPA or TCEQ. 1718 Benzene exposure can cause headaches and nausea, and long-term exposure increases the risk of cancer. “….

“In conclusion, we believe that EPA made a decision in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to. prioritize its appearance in the press over public safety in Houston. EPA should always welcome and evaluate additional information about environmental conditions that may threaten public health. EPA officials should have coordinated with other agencies whose capabilities complemented their own. EPA also should have worked to coordinate with the stakeholders whose data contradicted their own statements and figure out the cause of these discrepancies, rather than working to cover up the problem. “….