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Modeling wind patterns to inform air quality monitoring of concrete plants

Travis County, Texas

Featured image for the project, Modeling wind patterns to inform air quality monitoring of concrete plants

Austin, Texas, skyline seen through a hazy sky. Source: KXAN Used with Permission.

With Central Texas’ rapid population growth driving new construction, many new concrete batch plants have been established in the area, which may contribute to particulate matter pollution in nearby communities. To better understand this problem, Travis County Office of Resilience and Clean Air Force of Central Texas will place particulate matter sensors around plants to study pollution. This project will inform future placement of sensors by modeling prevailing wind patterns around concrete batch plants. Modeling from this project and later sensor data collection will help communities understand and respond to the pollution these plants produce and associated health risks.


About the Community

The government of Travis County is the primary lead on the project. Established in 1993, The Clean Air Force of Central Texas is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that provides clean air solutions for the public, private, and government sectors of Central Texas by working with partners across sectors to maintain compliance with EPA guidelines.

Travis County is in Central Texas and encompasses many extremes – increasing wealth and deep poverty; dense urban development and rural agricultural lands; extended droughts and flash flooding; temperatures as high as high as 112 and as low as -2. Home to Austin, Travis County has experienced explosive population growth in the past decade, increasing 26.7% up to 1.3 million from 2010 to 2021. It is the 9th fastest growing county in the nation. This rapid population growth has resulted in a surge of construction projects, which is having a significant impact on the community and our natural resources that are both already stressed by the impacts of climate change.

The key priority of this Thriving Earth project is to lay the groundwork for robust, defensible, non-adversarial monitoring of concrete plant particulate matter pollution through model-informed placement of sensors.

In the past, Travis County has tried to obtain this information by engaging with other environmental organizations but has not been successful due to lack of funds and expert knowledge on the subject.


About the Project 

The Concrete Batch Plant Wind Modeling Project aims to find prevailing wind patterns around batch plants to determine the best placement of particulate matter sensors. The wind modeling will help us know where to put monitors and how many need to be placed. The data collected from the particulate matter sensors will help the community better understand the level of pollution these plants produce and the associated health risks to nearby communities.

With Central Texas’ rapid population growth driving continuous new construction, a lot of concrete must be produced by a large number of concrete batch plants. A 2021 report found 113 active concrete batch plants in Travis County alone.

Concrete batch plants are known producers of air pollution. Residents downwind of these plants complain of contaminated air, dust-filled homes, and difficulty breathing. The EPA has found that batch plants pollute the air with fine particulate matter, increasing the risk of asthma attacks and cardiac arrest if inhaled too much. Due to their location, these plants often disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.

While both federal and state agencies do wind modeling, typically these studies are not granular enough to determine where particulate matter sensors should be placed around specific batch plants. Most wind modeling looks at the macro patterns throughout an entire region. This project would study the micro patterns. Ultimately, this wind data, along with reports from sensors placed as a result of this project, could help build a case for reducing particulate pollution and safeguarding citizens’ health.


Timeline and Milestones

Travis County and Clean Air Force would like results in hand by the end of 2023 to prepare for changes in EPA clean air standards.

Key milestones include:

  • Collating data on and mapping existing concrete batch plants.
  • Creating, applying, and/or downscaling surface wind measurements and models to a suitable scale for analysis.
  • Delivering written recommendations and maps on sensor placement and air quality monitoring strategy.
  • (Tentative) Creating an educational resource for communities that may be impacted by concrete batch plant air pollution.

Project Team

Community Leads 

Adele Noel has been working for Travis County for over 10 years as Environmental Project Specialist, specializing in Air Quality work. Adele Noel is responsible for developing strategies to reduce ground level ozone and particulate matter to improve air quality for the region. While at Travis County, Adele Noel has implemented several new programs to improve air quality. Most recent internal programs are: teleworking policy, free transit passes for employees, a Commuter Incentive Program, and a Guaranteed Ride Home program. Another aspect is transforming the county’s fossil fueled vehicles to electric vehicles. Additionally, Adele Noel is responsible for monitoring federal rules on air quality and provides analysis on the impacts of rules to the region to Commissioner’s Court, managers, other government entities, employees, and the public. Liaison for County representatives serving on the Clean Air Coalition, the Clean Air Force, and the Community Advancement Network Board.


Community Scientist

Austin Harris headshot

Austin Harris (he/him) is an ASP Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. He has a Ph.D. and M.S. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and a B.S from the University of Oklahoma (OU). Before working in research, Austin served as a Forecaster at Innovative Weather, a University Instructor with UWM and OU, and an Instructor for the National Weather Service. In the latter role, he helped train NWS forecasters how to issue severe thunderstorm, tornado, and flash flood warnings for their communities. As an eight-year-old, Austin saw the 5/3/1999 Moore, OK F-5 tornado up close and personal. From that point on, he knew he wanted to study the sky.


Community Science Fellow

James Collins (he/him)

I am a Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying how communities adapt to emerging compound hazards through bottom-up social and population changes. My doctoral work focuses on how adaptation governance shapes migratory responses to flooding in a range of geographies. I use qualitative, participatory, statistical, and big data techniques to investigate climate change adaptation and population change to inform community response and planning. Prior to doctoral training, I earned undergraduate degrees in environmental science and government and worked for the City of Austin as an applied geographer and data analyst. I’m originally from Central Texas, and tacos, live music, and oak-juniper canyonlands give me life.


Former Team Members

Bill Gibbs, M.A., is Executive Director. He joined the Clean Air Force in 2021 after a successful career in Higher Education leadership. His previous positions have included management roles at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona Beach, FL), Texas A&M University (College Station, TX) and Kilgore College (Kilgore, TX). He also has served in board leadership for a variety of non-profit organizations. A lifelong advocate of sustainability, he is committed to keeping air quality in Central Texas in compliance with EPA standards so we all can enjoy healthy air. He makes his home in Pflugerville, Texas.