After criticism of parking air surveillance vans in Austin, TCEQ sets up regional in Houston for faster response to chemical incidents

The Texas Environmental Quality Commission spent nearly a million dollars to equip mobile air monitoring vans and then parked them in Austin. State officials say this is where staff need to maintain and deploy them.

But when a refinery leaks or catches fire, it takes hours for the van to get here. The time that elapses is crucial for emergency officials to decide what precautions to put in place, defenders said.

Hearing this criticism, the agency has now reworked three small SUVs to fit new $ 75,000 air monitoring machines. These will be decommissioned regional surveillance vehicles to fill the gap. One will go to Corpus Christi, another to Beaumont and a third to Houston.

“This is exactly the reason we have carried out these regional investigation assets, is to be able to fill that niche,” said Cory Chism, who oversees air monitoring for the agency. “It’s a force multiplier for what we do.”

The move comes as the agency is also pushing for a new office in Houston, saying the current one east of downtown has leaky windows, mold and rodents. Some 200 employees work there, according to the agency’s recent self-assessment.

Its parking lot, too, is neither large enough nor secure enough, according to the report. Staff reported trespassing, thefts and vandalism and a lack of 24-hour security. They claim that it would not be safe to accommodate the valuable vans there if they wanted to.

The equipment in the SUV can be removed. But the elevators that staff use to move equipment often fail, according to the report. There have also been recurring electrical issues and a lack of child care since they moved in – in the mid-1990s.

The Elias Ramirez building has so many problems that the move is one of 17 priorities TCEQ is asking lawmakers to address. The agency is subject to review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, which makes recommendations to lawmakers.

A spokesperson for the Texas Facilities Commission, which acts as the owner of the building, said she had not received a request to relocate from the agency. It is the only state-owned building in the area, according to a commission map. Tenants do not pay rent.

The commission has a significant backlog of deferred maintenance and must prioritize what it can deal with, spokeswoman Françoise Luca said. The commission is currently working with TCEQ to study how the space could be better occupied.

Some $ 285,000 has also already been spent on an assessment of the building, and $ 1.24 million is spent on improvements, Luca said. The commission replaces a water storage tank for fire fighting and installs new heating and air conditioning units.

“We try to support our tenants in whatever they need to accomplish their mission for the citizens of Texas,” Luca said.

Luca noted that the workers set up rat traps and did not catch any. They tested the air quality and found it to be very good.

If TCEQ wanted to fund its own work, Luca says, it could.

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