NASA Study to Monitor Air Pollution After Hurricane Harvey Cancelled

In or around September 2018, following Hurricane Harvey, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were prevented from collecting air quality data in the Houston area. The scientists, based in NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission program, proposed flying a D-8 aircraft equipped with air samplers over the city to identify possible chemical releases. That proposal was reportedly opposed by officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

EPA’s deputy regional administrator for Texas, David Gray, reportedly told NASA scientists that the agency was already monitoring air quality in the Houston area and was “hesitant” to have other scientists “collect additional information that overlaps with our existing efforts.” The director of toxicology at TCEQ, Michael Honeycutt, subsequently expressed concern that the NASA data would not be “useful.”  David Gray agreed and indicated that “EPA . . . will not plan to ask NASA to this mission.” In response, the chief scientist in NASA’s Earth Science Division, Paul Newman, noted that “NASA does NOT need EPA approval” and would go ahead with the flight. However, he was over-ruled by the director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, Michael Freilich, who cancelled the flight due to the concerns expressed by EPA and TCEQ.


On March 6, 2019, Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson, Lizzie Fletcher, and Mikie Sherrill commenced an investigation into the cancelled flight. In a letter to NASA, EPA, and TCEQ, the Representatives expressed concern that “[i]nstead of gathering the most accurate air quality data possible, State and Federal officials apparently decided they would rather not know about potential toxic chemical releases.” The representatives asked NASA, EPA, and TCEQ to provide copies of all documents relating to the decision to cancel the flight.


TCEQ responded to the information request on March 19, 2019. In a letter accompanying its response, TCEQ rejected claims that it would “rather not know about potential toxic chemical releases,” stating:

“TCEQ is keenly focused on gathering actionable data to protect public health. That was even more true in Harvey’s aftermath [when] TCEQ rushed to deploy and redeploy an array of assets designed to identify chemical releases and assess the risks to public health.

NASA’s proposed Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATom) test flight of Houston, however, was not designed to support TCEQ’s efforts to protect public health in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. The flight was ad hoc to NASA’s research mission. It would have collected data for a mere three hours and would have been conducted more than two weeks after Harvey had blown through Houston. By that time, 97% of the Houston-area monitors were back online and TCEQ had already collected over a week’s worth of data, in addition to information from neighborhood and fence-line sampling.”

TCEQ’s letter went on to praise “NASA’s significant contributions in response to Hurricane Harvey.” It also noted the high “quality of NASA’s scientific research” and asserted that “TCEQ has never stood in the way of” that research.