Richmond struggles with air pollution from a range of emission sources 

The City of Richmond, California, has grappled with poor air quality for decades. A historically disadvantaged community, Richmond residents face unhealthy levels of air pollution from a range of sources. The most notable polluters are an oil refinery, a port, and a railyard that are deeply intertwined with the city’s economy, as well as a dense network of freeways that run through Richmond. 

As a result, nearly a third (27%) of children ages 2-17 in Richmond are afflicted with asthma, a rate nearly double California’s average of 14%. For communities bordering the refinery, the situation is even more dire - every single one of these communities ranks in the 99th percentile for asthma according to the California Environmental Protection Agency

So many public health issues can be traced back to the air people are breathing during their everyday lives - not just during wildfires when air quality is visibly poor.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

Richmond residents have always known that these health issues were directly tied to the refinery and the freeways that burden their community. Without data to support these claims, however, they had been unable to rally the public support needed to effectively confront the polluters in their community.

For over 10 years, the environmental and youth development organization Groundwork Richmond (Groundwork) has worked to improve the urban environment in Richmond by developing community-based partnerships that empower people, businesses, and organizations to promote environmental, economic, and social well-being. 

As Matt Holmes explains, communities like Richmond have a greater risk in the coming climate crisis:

We have an overburdening of emission sources in Richmond. The impact of air pollution is evident in the disproportionately high hospitalization rates when it comes to respiratory and cardiac illness. The COVID-19 crisis bore out the unpleasant truth - people that are exposed to more pollution are more susceptible to the coronavirus. That's why we've seen disproportionate hospitalizations, especially among communities of color. The chronic and prolonged exploitation of less powerful communities isn't only wrong, it also makes everyone else more vulnerable.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

Groundwork decided to take a stand on the poor air quality in Richmond. With Groundwork’s support, Holmes undertook a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of air quality in Richmond, with the end goal of deploying a high-resolution and publicly available air quality monitoring network that would provide the community with vital information about real-time air quality. He initially worked with the National Park Service to scope a project implementing air quality monitoring along the highway corridors in Richmond and was eventually awarded a $500,000 and then a $300,000 grant by the California Climate Initiative through the California Air Resources Board’s AB 617, Community Air Grants Program.

Holmes had the funding he needed to begin building out a community-based air quality monitoring network in Richmond but needed to find the right partners to implement an accurate and high-resolution network of low-cost sensors. 

Leveraging off-grid air quality monitors to build a resilient air quality monitoring network

Holmes worked closely with the City of Richmond to identify partners that would best be able to implement such an ambitious network. The City introduced Holmes to Ramboll Shair, an innovation group within consulting firm Ramboll that is working to bring unparalleled transparency and insight from air quality data by using air quality models to visualize air dispersion and the sources contributing to measured pollution. 

Julia Luongo, air quality expert and founder of Ramboll Shair, advised Holmes that they would need to find a low-cost air monitoring device that offered accurate readings, off-grid deployment, and reliable data connectivity. Using monitors that do not require a dedicated electrical connection would make the network more resilient in the face of potential power outages, and would allow for much more flexible siting of the devices in locations that were truly relevant to the health of community members. 

Luongo recommended that Holmes use the Clarity Node-S to build out his network.

Securing line power for low-cost air quality monitors is a real challenge. The Clarity Node-S was the only low-cost air quality monitoring hardware that we knew was reliable and could operate off-grid - and stay online during blackouts. We installed the network in the summer of 2019 after the horrendous fire season of 2018 and we knew we didn’t have the luxury of relying on power supply in the Bay Area.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

After identifying Clarity as the ideal air quality monitoring provider to build out the network, Holmes worked closely with Clarity and Shair to ensure that the accuracy of the devices was in line with expectations. With vital support from the California Air Resources Board, Holmes conducted a parking lot study in June of 2019 at the State’s Monitoring Lab in Sacramento, co-locating all devices with the state’s array of federal equivalency monitors prior to deploying them in the Richmond study area. Clarity also provided Groundwork with additional devices for a colocation at the local air district’s San Pablo Rumrill reference monitoring station. Holmes found that after calibration, the accuracy of the data provided by the Clarity Node-S was comparable with the accuracy provided by the local reference station when measuring particulate matter (PM). 

We've been able to run multiple colocation studies with regulatory-grade reference stations during this project. At the beginning of the deployment, we colocated all of the devices that would be included in the network with a reference station in Sacramento. 14 months into the project, we were also able to colocate with the air quality management district’s rooftop lab in San Pablo. These studies demonstrated a very high degree of precision for PM₂.₅ measurements, allowing Clarity to apply advanced calibration techniques that improve data accuracy when compared with reference instruments.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

Calibrated data from the Clarity Nodes performed particularly well during periods with high concentrations of ambient particulate matter, such as during the 2020 wildfire season. For more information on calibration and its impacts on data accuracy, please see our wildfire calibration blog

AQI readings from August 2020 for the San Pablo reference station and a colocated Clarity monitor (after calibration). Clarity’s calibrated monitor was able to assign air quality to the correct AQI category for 80% of the reported hourly average over the period between Aug 18th to Aug 31st.

After validating the accuracy and precision of the Clarity devices, Groundwork needed to install them in community-designated locations across the city. To do so, they hired local community members to take ownership of installing and maintaining the network. 

One of Groundwork’s primary focuses is training youth from low-income households for college-bound, higher-earning career paths. Groundwork provides meaningful, project-based learning experiences where students can get hands-on experience addressing climate justice and resilience. These projects empower local youth to learn employable skills while envisioning solutions to the burdens that challenge their community. This project provided Groundwork the opportunity to employ 9 community members to install and manage the network.

What made our project unique is that we hired local Richmond residents who had no experience in air monitoring or technical hardware. Groundwork really is, at its core, a workforce development program. The Clarity network allowed us to hire people and pay people a competitive wage to deliver a technical service in environmental monitoring - jobs typically reserved for people from outside of the community. We've had nine Richmond residents from state-defined disadvantaged communities receive a wage for working on this project, deploying and maintaining these nodes, and building employable skills in the process.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

In addition to advising Holmes on the deployment of the network, Ramboll would provide an extremely high-resolution real-time air quality model developed by the Shair innovation group. This model would provide the City of Richmond with real-time and historical air quality data at 10-meter resolution - one of the highest resolution real-time maps available in any city in the world. 

Ramboll Shair builds a groundbreaking 10-meter resolution air quality model with data from the Richmond Clarity network

To validate and adjust a model at such a high resolution, Shair needed a dense network of highly-accurate air quality monitors. The Clarity network provided data of sufficient resolution to begin validating and learning from this innovative model.

Real-time, high-density monitoring data from Clarity is an integral piece that allows the Shair model to display the best representation of real-time air quality across Richmond. This combination of model and monitoring allows the community to finally see what has previously been invisible and from that learn where to focus emissions reduction efforts.”

- Julia Luongo, Founder & Director, Ramboll Shair

The Shair model blends the advantages of traditional air quality models - typically used in regulatory contexts such as for air quality planning - with the advantages of dense monitoring networks. While the Clarity Node-S network provides more information about real-time conditions at higher spatial resolution, the Shair model fills in the gaps, visualizes the trends, and helps diagnose the likely sources contributing to air pollution. The model also serves as an educational tool for the community to see - with colors and contours on a map - how wind conditions and terrain affect how air moves around and how pollution disperses from sources people are familiar with in Richmond. 

Luongo's Shair model provides 10-meter resolution air quality data for Richmond's 110K residents.

Between the Shair model and Clarity’s OpenMap, Groundwork had all of the tools they needed to share data from the network publicly and begin raising awareness in the Richmond community. 

The path to clean air: Richmond establishes a community emissions reduction planning committee

Access to air quality data that is highly accurate, local, and easily shared has changed the way that the Richmond community thinks about air quality. 

This was a big change in the way we look at air quality in Richmond. Usually, there's an incident or an accident, or you target an emission source. And you put a few monitors around that emission source. Clarity allowed us to ask the community, where do you go? What are the places that matter to you?”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

Galvanized by the availability of scientifically defensible air quality data to support their arguments, Richmond residents have taken air pollution issues into their own hands. 

Community residents in Richmond have been asking for real, local data for a long time, and if we had had to rely on city-owned buildings we would not have been able to provide so many nodes across the geography. Being able to purchase so many Clarity Nodes allowed us to respond to community demand. One of the best ways to take somebody's power away is to make them think that they didn't have it in the first place. By raising awareness about air quality, this network has reminded people of the power that they already have.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

Since the network was deployed, the community in Richmond has become much more vocal about the need to reduce or eliminate air pollution emissions sources in the city. Residents have the power to report odors and emissions to the air quality management district - and if enough complaints are filed, likely emission sources are required by statutory measures to shut down immediately.

Data from the Clarity network is hosted in the cloud and accessible to anyone on their mobile phone. Citizens are now able to evaluate the air around them and decide when to employ that reporting power.

By making air quality data accessible to the public, the Clarity network has allowed people from the community who aren’t experts in air quality to take a leadership role in conversations around the future of air quality in Richmond. 


At its outset, the Community Air Monitoring Planning effort was governed by a 30-member steering committee that analyzed the Richmond community and its various emission sources, and developed a plan to monitor the entire Richmond and San Pablo area over the course of 18 months. 

That monitoring plan has now matriculated into what's called the Community Emissions and Exposure Reduction Plan (CERP), a plan that will be designed by an ensuing community-led steering committee. 

Because of my role with this network, I've been able to join the CERP design team with independent information and working with community partners we've designed a transparent and rigorous application process that ensures the CERP will be community-led and won't be influenced by actors that frankly don't have the community's best interests at heart. And because it's a regulatory effort supported by new legislation, they'll be able to enforce reductions in emission-causing industrial activities, and they'll be able to direct funds to mitigate emissions and exposure.” 

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

The ability of the CERP to direct funds to future studies is crucial. This means that the CERP can fund a continued study of the impact of freeways on Richmond’s air quality. Freeways contribute significantly to mobile-source air pollution, and continuous, long-term monitoring is needed to better quantify and characterize the impacts that California’s network of freeways has on the low-income communities they burden. 

One of the big gaps in air quality regulation has been the guesswork around mobile-source emissions in California. The state has simply not had the data to scientifically evaluate this because none of our freeways are sufficiently monitored. Being able to place Clarity Node-S devices directly straddling the I-80 corridor gave us a lot more granularity in examining freeway pollution, and allowed us to study and characterize it in ways that nobody had before.”

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

Where leadership on air quality issues was previously reserved for atmospheric chemists, industry representatives, and lobbyists, the Clarity network is giving that power back to the community members most directly impacted by air pollution in Richmond. That shift is already having a huge impact on the reductions of emissions and exposure in Richmond's study area. 

Due to the success of the program, the framework used by the Richmond network has now been formally adopted as a blueprint for AB 617, some of the most progressive environmental justice legislation in the state of California, if not the country. 

Advancing the future of AB 617 to reduce emissions exposure in California 

Assembly Bill 617 was passed as the environmental justice supplement to California's cap and trade program. This landmark piece of regulation required the California Air Resources Board to develop emissions and exposure reduction plans for some of California's most impacted communities. Richmond was one of the first communities selected for California’s Community Air Protection Program.

AB 617 will be subject to review in 2023, where best practices from projects like Groundwork Richmond’s will be used to inform and shape the future of the policy. 

All of the data that we collect with the Clarity nodes will have to be supplied to the California Air Resources Board. New communities in places like South Sacramento and Stockton have now been designated for AB 617 grants, and these communities will benefit from the lessons learned in places like Richmond and West Oakland. And for the same reasons, we're going to need the flexibility and reliability provided by Clarity Node-S."

- Matt Holmes, Air Quality Consultant and former Executive Director, Groundwork Richmond

For more information on Groundwork Richmond and the Richmond air quality monitoring network, visit the Groundwork Richmond Air Rangers website.

Know of a community that needs an air quality monitoring network? Contact us.