Harris County Commissioners Court Takes Action to Significantly Ramp Up Environmental Protection, Monitoring, and Enforcement

Tuesday September 10, 2019

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a total of $11.6 million to expand and modernize the county’s ability to protect the environment and enable a proactive response to any potential threats to public health and safety. The funding and associated comprehensive package of reforms is the most significant expansion of the County’s ability to protect residents from environmental threats in at least 30 years, and will significantly expand monitoring, response, and enforcement capacity across three key county departments.

Over the next two years, the number of staff for Pollution Control Services, the Fire Marshal’s Office and Public Health Department will increase by 61 employees. This includes a doubling of the size of the Fire Marshall’s HazMat team and a 27% increase in their overall staff. It also includes a 50% increase in staff for Pollution Control Services. The funding also covers one-time capital purchases that include a state-of-the-art mobile air monitoring lab, a network of fixed and mobile monitors, and vehicles and safety gear for HazMat responders. The steps announced today shore up support for agencies that have been historically underfunded and are informed by a “gap analysis” conducted after recent petrochemical fires.

“Our residents should never have to worry about the quality of the air they breathe or the environmental conditions in which they’re raising their families,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “Harris County is the nation’s epicenter for oil, gas and petrochemical production, with thousands of people living in very close proximity to industrial facilities. Today's actions will finally enable us to shift from a reactive posture to a proactive one when it comes to protecting our communities. We simply can’t rely on industry or state and federal agencies to safeguard the quality of our environment.”

The allocations for three county agencies are as follows:

$5.9 million for staff and equipment at Pollution Control Services, including: 

  • $2.6 million for 29 new staff positions, including emergency response workers, chemists, and field investigators 
  • $3.3 million for a mobile air monitoring lab, new equipment for the onsite lab, fixed and mobile monitors, and monitors to build a steady-state network in the community that operates even when disasters are not occurring.

$1.1 million for Public Health positions, including:

  • Environmental health and emergency response physicians
  • Chemical response planner, public health hygienist, environmental toxicologist
  • Environmental epidemiologists

“Ramping up monitoring and enforcement allows us to hold ourselves and our industry neighbors accountable. These investments will help ensure we are good neighbors — ones that look out for each other and communicate openly,” said Commissioner Adrian Garcia

In developing the Pollution Control Services request, the department and County Judge’s Office convened a stakeholder work group to solicit ideas, best practices, and suggestions for how PCS should address the gaps included in the Gap Analysis. Stakeholder work group members included staff from the County Judge’s Office and all Precinct offices, staff from various County Departments, representatives from the City of Houston, representatives from local nonprofits and universities, and community advocates. The work group met 6 times over a 45-day period. Moving forward, the county will continue to work to build upon this kind of participatory policy making process.

The investments build upon a series of previous efforts to improve the county’s ability to respond to disasters while working proactively to keep communities safe. In April, Harris County Commissioners approved the hiring of four new environmental prosecutors to hold large industrial firms accountable. In July, Judge Hidalgo directed Pollution Control Services to develop a comprehensive community monitoring strategy. The Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management was also instructed to bring back a full implementation plan for an improved public information and warning system.