COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A fleet of blue-and-white branded vehicles will eventually descend on two Columbus neighborhoods to gather air pollution data, seeking to determine how the air residents inhale and exhale near the site of the deadly 2021 Yenkin-Majestic plant explosion stacks.

Columbus City Council voted Monday to contract with Aclima, a San-Francisco-based technology company that measures air quality hyper-locally through cars armed with monitoring sensors. 

Under the ordinance, Aclima will use a fleet of its vehicles to monitor for a variety of pollutants in the St. Mary’s neighborhood and another neighborhood. The second — which will serve as a point of comparison — has yet to be determined, according to Councilmember Emmanuel Remy. 

Remy did not directly name Yenkin-Majestic in an interview or during the Monday night meeting, and the ordinance itself refers only to an April 2021 “environmental event.” But the neighborhood was selected because of its proximity to the paint plant, according to a Council spokesperson.

“The North Central Community, our neighbors, deserve peace of mind and sound quality of life,” Remy said during the meeting Monday. “This partnership with Aclima is a direct result of the community’s advocacy.”

Air quality firm measures ‘very’ local pollution levels

Air pollutants are traditionally and more commonly monitored by federal, state and local agencies with sensors that don’t move. 

Aclima co-founder and CEO Davida Herzl said in an interview the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory air quality sensors are a gold standard for broader, regional data, but that they don’t give the fullest picture of “very” local pollution. 

“One of the reasons that it is so hard to understand pollution at this very local level is that the technology to generate these measurements just has not been invested in,” Herzl said.

But research has shown, she said, that pollution levels can vary drastically from one block to another. Historically, she said, redlining and other policies have meant power plants are often situated in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Aclima’s work on this project will take at least through 2024, Remy said, and the city’s partnership with the tech firm could eventually extend to other neighborhoods. 

The city’s air quality — across the board — has been of conversation since March, when an air quality study released in recent weeks rendered Columbus the “most polluted major U.S. city.” The Ohio EPA and Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission both said the study’s results don’t align with their own data.

To do its research, Aclima will also likely hire around ten residents initially to drive its vehicles and assist with data collection. 

Some say the effort is too little, too late

Columbus resident Desmond Thombs was sitting on his back deck when the April 8, 2021, boom rang out and the black clouds began to billow.

“It smelled out here, bad. For like a whole two weeks, you could smell it,” Thombs told NBC4. 

Two years and some change later, he said measuring the air quality is a good but delayed effort. Brad Jeckering, a Mechanicsburg-based attorney, said much of the same. 

“The paint factory hasn’t done the right thing, the city hasn’t done the right thing,” Jeckering said in an interview. “The federal government still lets this plant manufacture.”

Jeckering is the attorney for Shirley Elkins, a Columbus woman who in March accused Yenkin-Majestic of structural damage to her home in a lawsuit filed in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court. Since the initial filing, he said dozens more residents have signed on, and that the total will likely reach 100. 

Although he is “thrilled they (Council) are doing something,” to assist his clients, he argued that the Council focuses its attention too often on High Street and high-rises. 

“They forget the folks who live on normal streets,” Jeckering said. “They should have been there two years ago.”