Environment Texas
Houston Chronicle
Kim McGuire

Air pollution happens every day in Houston.

Sometimes, that pollution is well within permit limits, considered safe by state environmental regulators, and sometimes, it's not.

So how do Houston residents who care about air quality tell the difference?

Several environmental groups have recently debuted a handy new tool that notifies people when a Texas industry anticipates releasing air pollution that exceeds permitted limits.

Here's how it works. Go to www.neighborhoodwitness.org and sign up for alerts.

Alerts are sent when a company tells state environmental regulators that it expects emissions will exceed permit limits, usually because of planned maintenance or repairs.

The alerts include how pollution is estimated for release, why it will be released, and ultimately, what the company plans to do about it. It also encourages residents to report polluters to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

"Most people don't know about pollution releases unless something dramatic happens," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. "But we do know that people in Houston and other cities in Texas care about air pollution. Neighborhood Witness is one way people can stay informed."

The creation of the alert system occurred by chance. While out canvassing support, Environment Texas members met a software engineer who volunteered his time to write a program to scrape TCEQ's database of industry reports.

Metzger credited TCEQ for being transparent and making that database available to the public.

One thing to keep in mind. The emailed reports are based on preliminary estimates that tend to be very conservative. Often, final reports show much lower amounts of pollution.

The Neighborhood Witness reports, however, give citizens an easy way to check back and see what happened.