As the destruction caused by Harvey was being broadcast across the nation, NASA scientists in the High Desert of California prepared a DC-8 to fly to Texas and monitor the situation. Scientists equipped the plane with sophisticated tools for taking samples of the air over the hurricane zone. They were doing this for a good reason—chemical spills, fires, and damaged industrial plants released toxins that caused residents and rescue crew to complain of nausea, dizziness, and sore throats. Scientists were ready to use information gathered by the plane to assess the cancer risk residents of the Harvey-afflicted areas faced.
The state of Texas and the EPA told the plane to stay where it was.
Why Was the Scientific Plane Grounded?
The Los Angeles Times spoke to numerous scientists and officials involved with the incident who told them that the data collected by the plane would cause “confusion” and that it might “overlap” with their investigation. Michael Honeycutt, the director of toxicology for the state of Texas, told NASA that their data would not be useful. The EPA let Honeycutt make this decision, even though he has a history of suggesting air pollution may be beneficial to human health.
What Would Have the Plane Found?
Scientists say that the DC-8 would have collected needed information about the air quality over the regions hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey. They had collected the same information during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In the wake of a natural disaster, data is the most useful tool for recovery.
While the NASA scientists admit that it’s possible their plane might have found nothing, post-Harvey research suggests otherwise. An Associated Press and Houston Chronicle investigation found significant and unreported pollution damage throughout the region hit by Harvey. The investigation identified over 100 instances of toxic releases because of Harvey.
Paul Newman, the chief scientist of the Earth Science Division at NASA, was frustrated by the prevention of the DC-8’s use. “Science is about numbers,” Newman said. “And if you’re unwilling to look, you’re not doing science.”