AUSTIN, Texas — 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.
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.
“This is welcome news for the people of Southeast Texas and the rest of our great state. The communities of Beaumont and Port Arthur have played a critical role in fueling both our state’s and nation’s economic successes, and our trajectory is not slowing down,” said Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont native. “With that success, though, we must continue to prioritize the safety of people who call Southeast Texas home. This partnership will no doubt help achieve that through the new research center and talented team that includes researchers from our own Lamar University to spearhead these efforts.”
As part of the five-year project, researchers will collect data and develop 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.
“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.”
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, a professor at Lamar University.
Researchers expect their findings in Southeast Texas to be generalizable to other regions and improve the resiliency of science and communities.