Texas Universities Partner to Study Combined Impact of Flooding and Air Pollution in Beaumont-Port Arthur

September 15, 2022

Four Texas universities, led by The University of Texas at Austin, have been awarded a grant to establish a new research center to study the risks and impacts of flooding and air pollution in a fast-growing part of Southeast Texas. The scientists will focus on the interactions between these two key issues, as well as their potential acceleration under various climate scenarios.

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Beaumont-Port Arthur, home to the world’s largest oil refinery and a major hub in the global energy sector, is a convergence zone for risks of flooding and air pollution. Researchers at Lamar University, Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee will join UT Austin to operate the Southeast Texas Urban Integrated Field Lab (SETx-IFL). The U.S. Department of Energy awarded the team a $17 million grant for one of three field labs across the country.

“This partnership is a perfect example of the collective impact Texas universities can have by identifying and solving some of the greatest challenges in our home state,” said Jay Hartzell, president of UT Austin. “Beaumont-Port Arthur is critical to our state’s energy economy, and it is important for us to understand potential industry and climate effects on its growing population. I am proud that UT Austin is leading this effort with these esteemed university partners.”

The grant, significant in size for all of the university partners and the largest ever awarded to Lamar University, will build on a network of more than 100 community, industry and government stakeholders who have studied flooding in the region over the years. The SETx-IFL will help to extend research efforts and build capacity.

As part of the five-year project, researchers will collect data and develop simulation models focused on flooding impacts and air pollution under various climate scenarios.  This is a novel approach because flooding and air pollution are rarely jointly examined in research.

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"Air pollution is a chronic stressor for the community, and that is compounded when flooding strikes," said Paola Passalacqua, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT Austin and leader of the project. "During flooding events there can be major chemical releases into the air and the soil. For both flooding and air pollution, we lack information on what is going to happen under future climate scenarios and how to prepare for that.”

Passalacqua has been studying flooding issues in Southeast Texas for several years as part of UT’s Planet Texas 2050 (PT2050) research grand challenge. She has sought to expand that research to include other hazards. Pawel Misztal, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, was already collecting air pollution data in Beaumont, so combining efforts makes sense. This effort also builds off of UT’s Whole Communities-Whole Health grand challenge to study environmental exposures and health in vulnerable communities with many researchers including Misztal and environmental engineering professor Kerry Kinney, who is part of the air theme in the SETx-IFL.

Researchers plan to examine how environmental hazards might disproportionately affect communities of color and will work with residents and community-based organizations to help communities adapt to future climate scenarios in equitable ways. The project also includes the development of educational resources to foster continued research and response to these threats, with an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion led by Liv Haselbach, professor at Lamar University, which is based in Beaumont.

Researchers expect their findings in Southeast Texas to be generalizable to other regions and improve the resiliency of science and communities.

The UT Austin team includes a total of 10 faculty members and researchers from a variety of colleges, schools and departments. Geeta Persad, assistant professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences, is leading the development of climate datasets for use across the project. Katherine Lieberknecht, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, is leading the co-design of mitigation solutions with the SETx-IFL communities. From the Cockrell School, Elena McDonald Buller, senior research engineer at the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources, will examine air quality impacts across the region, and Kasey Faust, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, is part of the co-design group. Patrick Bixler, an assistant professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, is part of the equity group. Suzanne Pierce, research scientist at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, is leading the Knowledge Management Platform, which will allow researchers and stakeholders to access cybertools to support the project.  

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"The Southeast Texas Urban Integrated Field Lab was built on the foundation of interdisciplinary research nucleated by PT2050. It is a prime example of the collective research impact made possible when UT scholars are brought together across college and disciplinary boundaries,” said UT Deputy Vice President for Research Jennifer Lyon Gardner, whose office oversees the grand challenges. 

Michelle Meyer, associate professor at Texas A&M University, brings expertise in social sciences to lead the equity portion of the project with collaborators from Texas A&M and ORNL and Noel Estwick, an assistant professor at Prairie View A&M.

Another funded IFL led by Argonne National Laboratory will focus on the Chicago area and involves Dev Niyogi, a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences and the Cockrell School of Engineering.

“PT2050 has been dedicated to advancing interdisciplinary research about resilience, and co-designing resilience strategies with stakeholder communities,” said Fernanda Leite, a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering and past PT2050 chair who will oversee project operations and management and is part of the co-design group. “Building on this strong foundation of collaboration and community-engaged research, and leveraging new collaborations with outside universities and ORNL, we will better understand projected climate impacts across Southeast Texas in a way that is generalizable to other regions and improve the practice of resilience science and community resilience.”