This story is part of our Clearing the Air series about citizens monitoring air quality near shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania. PublicSource conducted its own citizen-science project outside the first shale gas pad in Penn Township, Westmoreland County. Read what we found.
Rebecca Roter’s Christmas 2014 was a doozy. On Christmas Eve, she got a rip-roaring nosebleed and then Ray, her 1-year-old dog, got sick on Christmas morning and died the next day.
At the time, Roter, 56, lived within a mile of the Williams Central Compressor Station and several shale gas well pads in Brooklyn Township, Pa., in Susquehanna County. She believes pollution from the surrounding activity made her sick. (Compressor stations are facilities that pressurize natural gas for transport through pipelines.)
An air quality monitor she had on her porch showed high levels of particle pollution over four hours that Christmas Eve. Elevated levels regularly occurred over seven months. Roter had the monitor because she was participating in a citizen science project to test the air near her home.
“I realized early on that the only thing I could do was document my experience,” said Roter, who is chairperson of the environmental group Breathe Easy Susquehanna County.
She monitored for seven months using Specks — low-cost air monitors that measure fine particulate matter called PM 2.5 — as part of Citizen Sense, a project led by University of London researchers. PM 2.5 exposure has been linked to many health issues, including respiratory, heart and neurological problems.
With the hope of spurring action from regulators, she sent her data to state and federal environmental and public health officials.
“That's the whole idea of citizen science, right?” said Roter, whose group tries to engage with the gas industry and state officials to improve air quality policy. “You get your data and you put it under the nose and on the desks of people who can drive discussions about policies and what to do.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) followed up and monitored the quality of air in her vicinity for 18 days in August and September 2015 using more precise air monitors. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) analyzed the EPA data and found that short-term exposures to PM 2.5 near the compressor station could be harmful to sensitive populations and estimated that annual average levels of PM 2.5 could be harmful to the general population.
A springboard for further action
Roter’s story is an exemplary tale of how newly developed low-cost sensor technology is helping citizens living near industrial activity.
Traditional air quality monitoring by regulators is done using expensive stationary equipment that takes averages of pollutants, like ozone and particulate matter, across a broad region. These methods weren’t designed to assess local impacts at homes near shale gas activities.
Recently there’s been a rise in popularity for easy-to-use, affordable sensors to monitor air quality. But these sensors — like the Speck — are met with skepticism from some regulators and industry officials who say that because the devices don’t meet regulatory standards their data can’t be trusted.
But federal researchers and air quality experts say this kind of technology is rapidly advancing and could one day be used for regulatory purposes. Until that happens, researchers and people living near industrial activity are finding new and beneficial ways to use these devices.
In Roter’s case, her data was a springboard for federal officials to conduct follow-up monitoring.
ATSDR officials couldn’t definitively say it was the compressor station causing elevated PM 2.5 levels near Roter’s house, because of data limitations such as not using regulatory-grade monitoring methods and not accounting for all nearby air pollution sources. However, the report recommended a “more robust assessment” of air quality, including seasonal monitoring near the Williams Central Compressor Station in Brooklyn.
Five days after ATSDR released its report, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] announced a $1.56 million expansion of its PM 2.5 monitoring network in 10 counties, including Susquehanna, into areas saturated with shale gas wells and compressor stations.
John Quigley, who was DEP secretary at the time, said the expansion was prompted by concerns from shale field residents.
Roter and Citizen Sense researchers attributed DEP’s decision to expand its air monitoring network partly to ATSDR’s report by Roter’s house, but DEP has said the expansion was in the works several months before the report was published.
As for the ATSDR report, Williams spokesman Joe Horvath wrote in an email that the company operates the compressor station within federal and state permit limits for particulate matter and other pollutants.
“[W]e are disappointed — and frankly, concerned — that an organization [ATSDR] would release such highly speculative findings that — by the report’s own admission — have numerous and significant limitations, and, further, lacked any form of recognized quality-assurance practices in the data-gathering and reporting process,” Horvath wrote.
‘Just good enough data'
Jennifer Gabrys, a sociologist who led the Citizen Sense project, wrote a 2015 paper based on what she calls “just good enough data,” which she explained in an email as citizen-collected data that “can provide unique and effective forms of evidence that complements (and, at times, even challenges) regulatory evidence.”
What Roter was able to accomplish with her data should be happening much more frequently in shale fields, said Nadia Steinzor, who works for Earthworks, a D.C.-based environmental advocacy group.
“Even if [data] is not the kind of airtight … data that represents rigorous science, it should be enough to trigger concerns that regulators go out and check it out more,” said Steinzor, who has organized citizen air quality monitoring near gas drilling in Pennsylvania.
In 2015, Roter moved to Georgia because her well water was contaminated and she was having health problems including ulcerated gums, skin rashes and ear infections. She thinks a spill on a nearby gas pad sullied her well based on water tests she had commissioned. But the DEP was unable to confirm a link, Roter said.
I asked to speak with a DEP official to get the department’s take on citizen science. An official was not made available for an interview, but agency spokesman Neil Shader emailed the following statement:
“DEP values the work and participation of citizens. Often, information provided by third parties will result in the Department’s independent investigation. Citizen-collected data can provide valuable information and comparative data especially if it is collected using the methods, equipment, and chain of custody that is required by applicable statutes, federal and state guidance, and regulations.”
What the feds are doing
In 2012, EPA research scientists began evaluating low-cost sensors by comparing them to regulatory-grade monitors and producing public reports on what they found.
“We were natural leaders to go there and examine the tech, to discover the tech and to share findings in a non-biased manner,” said Ron Williams, a research chemist who is part of the effort to evaluate air quality sensors for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
While Williams said he’s seen sensor technology improve in recent years, currently there are no low-cost sensors they’ve evaluated that could be used for regulatory or enforcement purposes. He said the EPA has been working with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre that also assesses low-cost sensors, with a government agency in California, and sensor manufacturers to evaluate and improve technology.
“One of the reasons we are examining as many of the sensor technologies as we can … is to see if they have the capability sometime in the future to be considered to be regulatory quality,” he said.
Williams also helped create an EPA website called the “Air Sensors Toolbox for Citizen Scientists” that provides guidelines for structuring citizen science projects. The materials provided are used by people worldwide and are the most downloaded items on the EPA development office’s website, he said.
“It’s clear and evident that there is such a strong desire for citizens to be involved,” in gathering air quality data, he said.
This summer, the EPA gave out six grants to universities and research laboratories that are using new air monitoring technology to help citizens track local air pollution.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers were awarded $750,000 from the EPA to help citizens use low-cost air sensors to test Pittsburgh’s air for multiple pollutants. The project will explore questions like: What is the quality of the data the sensors produce? How can the information help communities and individuals understand and reduce harmful air pollution exposures?
Williams said the grants are “investing in working directly with citizen scientists and … also enabling citizen scientists to partner with those who can assist them in gaining the expertise and knowledge to work effectively in their communities.”
Satellites and Specks
Michael McCawley wants to get a clearer picture of particulate pollution in the United States.
To do this, the environmental scientist at West Virginia University thinks he can pair Speck monitors, or similar monitors, with NASA satellite data.
Technology called MODIS onboard two NASA satellites gathers data and images of the entire United States twice daily. McCawley explained that if you have a monitor on the ground, like a Speck, you can use it to “fill in” local data within a broader set of images and data that the satellites gather to create air models that paint a clearer pollution picture.
“The satellite allows you to take that single [Speck] measurement and expand it to the surrounding area by giving you a reference point,” he said. “You're really getting down to the level where we can say, ‘OK, the person in this house got this exposure.’”
Then researchers would be able to create visualizations similar to heat maps that could show pollution hotspots and potentially point toward emission sources.
He said this kind of research could take five to 10 years to develop.
McCawley and other WVU professors are pursuing funding for this research. He’s had preliminary talks with public health researchers at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP) about a collaboration on this work. EHP researchers help residents use Speck monitors to gather air data near shale sites. PublicSource recently worked with EHP on a citizen science project that used Speck monitors to measure particle pollution near a fracking site in Penn Township, Westmoreland County.
“It's going to take work to do this,” McCawley said about the satellite research. “But this is kind of where the future is going because NASA is pushing these satellites for doing exactly this kind of work.”
This story is part of a project funded by Arizona State University and the Knight Foundation.