OBP partners: Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Integrity Project, Public Citizen, and Rice University
Fifth Ward resident Reverend James Caldwell is all too familiar with the effects of poor air quality.
“My friends and neighbors have cardiovascular problems, respiratory issues such as asthma, and even cancer,” said Rev. Caldwell.
“We can only bring about that change if we’re aware of the problem and that it exists.”
In 2013, Houston Endowment convened a group of environmental, academic and consumer advocacy organizations to identify major challenges to reducing emissions in the Houston region. A lack of public awareness and concern about poor air quality and its health impacts topped the list.
With the Foundation’s support, the group carried out public polling, which revealed that once people learned about the health impacts of poor air quality and about practical solutions, they were motivated to act. This was true across political and demographic lines. Further, an analysis revealed that past media coverage made it difficult for people to understand the scope of the problem.
With help from Houston Endowment, the group developed a strategy to elevate awareness about the harmful effects of air pollution by amplifying the work of local researchers and encouraging affected residents to share their stories. This collective effort, the Houston Air Quality Media Initiative, eventually adopted the brand One Breath Partnership (OBP).
Early on, the initiative obtained significant media coverage of a report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas that detailed a lack of enforcement by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality against polluters.
“Environment Texas had put out lists previously of facilities with the most unauthorized pollution. After a while, the list looked the same year after year, and they lost reporters’ interest,” said Matthew Tresaugue, communications manager of the Houston Air Quality Media Initiative and a former environment reporter for the Houston Chronicle. “We came up with the enforcement angle.”
The report generated stories in every major newspaper in Texas and many across the U.S., including headlines on the front pages of the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle. It was also covered on the evening news of Houston’s NBC affiliate.
As Hurricane Harvey made its way toward Houston in August, the OPB partners realized a bad storm could mean an increase in harmful emissions if industrial facilities were shut down or flooded. Indeed, the storm resulted in the expulsion of nearly 4,000 tons of air pollution from 74 industrial sources in and around Houston, including benzene, a dangerous carcinogen.
“We developed a line of messaging: ‘One of the unseen dangers of Harvey,’” said Tresaugue. “One of the first people to jump on it was the reporter from The Washington Post … we showed him how to read the industry reports … it snowballed from there.”
Tresaugue estimates that OBP helped generate more than 1,000 news stories on air pollution in the wake of Harvey – something that wasn’t part of the narrative after Hurricanes Katrina or Ike – in publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Not only did the news coverage promote public awareness, it helped start a dialogue between OBP and the regulatory agencies and resulted in specific enforcement actions.
Looking ahead, the OBP partners will continue to work together to take advantage of opportunities to use stories and evidence to inspire Houstonians to take action to improve air quality.
“Each of the partners still operates as they always have. They’re still who they are,” said Tresaugue. “But through the Partnership, we can encourage everyone to be on the same page … [we can] build on one another to get messages across for the need for stronger protections for public health.”
Houston Endowment Investment in One Breath Partnership: $1,620,000 to the Environmental Defense Fund for a collaborative air quality public awareness campaign (2016)