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IU Researchers Achieve a Better Understanding of Air Pollution

IU SPEA researchers use Karst Desktop to gain better understanding of air pollution

IU researcher Nikolaos Zirogiannis, School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), and his collaborators (SPEA professors Alex Hollingsworth and David Konisky) have been hard at work to better understand air pollution in the United States. The main focus of their recent work has been on a category of pollutants called “excess emissions”.  In the United States, the Clean Air Act (CAA) requires that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set standards for air quality across the country with state environmental agencies mandating emissions limits in industrial plants in order to meet those standards. As a result, there is a category of “excess emissions” if the emissions are beyond the permitted levels and if they occur during startups, shutdowns, or malfunctions. The main finding of the team’s current work is that excess emissions are occurring much more frequently than one might expect and are rather routine. And, these excess emissions are affecting public health negatively (including increasing mortality rates) - the team estimates the costs to be $150 million just in 2015 alone in the state of Texas!


Reprinted with permission from Zirogiannis, N., Hollingsworth, A.J., and Konisky, D.M. (2018). Understanding Excess Emissions from Industrial Facilities: Evidence from Texas. Environmental Science and Technology (DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b04887). Copyright (2018) American Chemical Society.

According to Zirogiannis, one might expect to see excess emissions during unusual circumstances such as natural disasters where industrial facilities lose power unexpectedly. For example, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused many of industrial facilities in Texas to shut down and restart their operations, which resulted in a large amount of excess emissions across the state of Texas. But, what about during normal operations - shouldn’t these excess emissions be relatively rare? Zirogiannis clarified that events where excess emissions are released are not, in fact, all that rare; excess emissions happen frequently during routine industrial operations.

Nikolaos Zirogiannis, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA)

How did the researchers reach this conclusion? The team analyzed the excess emissions data obtained from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Zirogiannis explained that Texas is one of the few states that provides this kind of data to the public in a way that it enables researchers like himself and his collaborators to be able to do their analyses. Once they obtained the data, they did sophisticated analyses to evaluate excess emissions and pollutants across multiple sectors and industrial facilities over a long period of time. In addition, they used their analyses to determine common causes of the excess emissions and monetary estimate of health damages caused by those emissions. The analyses showed that excess emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (one of group of pollutants they studied) in Texas were equivalent to 7.5% of permitted emissions from all facilities between 2004 and 2015. Given that these kinds of emissions are rather excessive, Zirogiannis and his collaborators wanted to raise more awareness of excess emissions to other states, especially those that are industrially heavy, and to the public policy makers. “We need to make sure that enough effort is placed in recording them and trying to minimize them in order to improve health outcomes across the country and across different states”, said Zirogiannis to UITS Research Technologies.

What resources did the researchers use to do their work? In order to fully utilize and store the publically available data from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Zirogiannis and his collaborators used Karst Desktop. Initially, the team realized that there was too much data to be able to work on desktops and it was difficult to share codes and findings among the collaborators. Thus, Karst Desktop has helped the team handle a large amount of data from TCEQ while creating an online collaborative atmosphere. Also, thanks to Karst Desktop that Zirogiannis and other collaborators could easily upload a lot of information without restricting the power of their desktop machines or laptops. According to Zirogiannis, “Karst Desktop provides an ease of collaboration across scholars and also unrestricted access to computational capability”.

This is the first paper in a series of papers that the team is working on. The next paper will be specifically about effects of enforcement actions on excess emissions, and the following paper will take a closer look at health damages caused by these emissions. Zirogiannis is hoping that this series of papers will increase the public awareness of excess emissions and their effects.