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Investigation Reveals Scale of South Texas’ Toxic Air Pollution Problem

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Three national media groups—the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel—published the results this week of an eight-month investigation into air pollution problems in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale. Much of what they found won’t be shocking to Texans. We call it bidness as usual: regulators and legislators captive to industry; citizens either comfortable with the downsides of massive oil and gas production or too afraid to protest; and an alarming lack of attention paid to those suffering from fracking-related toxic emissions. After spending so much time here, the reporters probably didn’t need a Texas Tech political scientist to tell them that “the health issues faced by people who live in drilling areas… simply don’t carry enough weight to counterbalance the financial benefits derived from oil and gas development.”

I spoke with David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News and he said his big takeaway for the rest of the country is in a word: “beware.”

“There are so many unanswered questions,” he said. “We took on the issue of emissions, of air pollution. And it’s cautionary because there’s so very little known about either the short-term or the long-term consequences of these emissions. … Somebody needs to start developing a baseline now of human health and then studying what’s happening with these emissions.”

In an accompanying piece, the reporters recount the many ways that government, industry and even ordinary citizens made reporting the story difficult. Railroad Commissioner David Porter agreeing to an on-camera interview with The Weather Channel then bailing at the last second. Operators refusing to offer on-the-ground tours of facilities or even refusing to answer questions.

My favorite example, though, is the description of dealing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, an agency that has all the public and media relations finesse of a Soviet politburo.

The agency responsible for regulating air emissions—the TCEQ—refused to make any of its commissioners, officials or investigators available for interviews. Instead, we had to submit questions via emails that were routed through agency spokespeople. It’s unclear if the spokespeople passed our questions along to the agency’s experts.

[…]

*When a reporter called TCEQ field inspectors at their homes—a commonly used reporting technique—TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow left the reporter a message saying, “Under no circumstances are you to call our people and harass them at home.” Morrow also blocked the reporter from approaching the agency’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, at a public meeting in Austin.

David Hasemayer, of InsideClimate News, told me he found the approach unusual.

“They would not talk to us, even their media people would not talk to us,” he said. “They were wholly unresponsive to talking to us and engaging in a give-and-take type of conversation.”

Indeed the whole story is riddled with “declined to comment” breadcrumbs that lead, for me at least, to the conclusion that our out-of-state friends were probably a bit dumbfounded at how little the industry, and its servants in government, care about engaging with pressing public health questions.

Hyde, now the TCEQ’s executive director, through an agency spokeswoman declined to comment.

[…]

Asked how the agency dealt with the polluters, Clawson did not respond.

[…]

Granado did not respond when asked why the plant had so many emission events last year.

[…]

Covert did not respond to interview requests.

The reporters wrote that the Eagle Ford Shale, which stretches from near Laredo on the border northeast for 400 miles into the eastern fringe of East Texas, “has yet to become part of the national conversation on hydraulic fracturing—fracking—in contrast to, say, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale or North Dakota’s Bakken.”

Wells permitted and completed in the Eagle Ford Shale, Feb. 2014
Texas Railroad Commission
Wells permitted and completed in the Eagle Ford Shale, Feb. 2014

Indeed, many Texans, I’d wager, know little about the Brush Country counties—DeWitt, Karnes and Webb among them—that form the epicenter of the shale. They’re sort of neither here nor there. I grew up in DeWitt County. People from the Valley don’t consider it South Texas. It’s too far from the coast to be part of that world. And it’s remote enough from a big city—San Antonio is closest—to be pulled into an urban orbit. This forgotten slice of Texas, until recently at least, was sparsely populated, lightly developed and insular. The Barnett Shale, underlying in part the affluent, relatively dense suburbs of Fort Worth, has received much more attention, even as drilling and production in the Eagle Ford Shale has soared to staggering levels.

The whole piece is worth reading but some parts stood out for me:

  • While it’s widely known that the Eagle Ford Shale isn’t comprehensively monitored for toxic emissions from fracking activity, the story reveals that TCEQ knows just how inadequate its monitoring system is. The reporting team obtained a memo from January 2011 that’s quite candid: “The executive director has extensive records of underestimated or previously undetected emissions from oil and gas sites. These are not isolated instances but have occurred statewide and indicate a pattern.” The agency runs just five permanent air monitors in the vast region—and those are geared for quantifying emissions that could impact San Antonio’s air quality—and has no plans to add more.
  • The Railroad Commission and TCEQ rarely issue penalties. Of the 217 fines levied by the Railroad Commission in 2012, the average was less than $9,000.
  • The Texas Legislature has increased the maximum penalty that TCEQ can levy from $10,000 per violation to $25,000, the agency hasn’t exactly seized its new authority. Of the 117 fines issued between January 2012 and October 2013 related to oil and gas production, operators paid less than $25,000 in more than three quarters of the cases.
  • A significant number of the complaints from folks living in the Eagle Ford Shale are probably related to hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, a dangerous oilfield gas that’s particularly prevalent in some sour spots of the shale.
  • The Texas Legislature, led by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), hamstrung a modest TCEQ program that would’ve imposed more stringent pollution control rules on oil and gas operators. The legislators effectively made it difficult, though not impossible, for TCEQ to apply its own rules to the Eagle Ford Shale in the same way the agency had in the Barnett Shale.

Welcome to Texas, y’all.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • claytonauger

    This also has implications for the efforts of San Antonio, Austin, Waco, and even DFW to meet new federal smog standards – all metro areas downwind of one or more large shale plays. TCEQ is “re-calculating” oil and gas smog emissions across the state in an effort to downplay their impact in new clean air plans that must be submitted to EPA by 2015. As this expose shows, the state doesn’t even have a handle on how many sources of gas industry pollution there are, much less realistic estimates for their volumes of pollution. Unfortunately, that’s not stopping TCEQ.

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    Somebody needs to start developing a baseline now of human health and then studying what’s happening with these emissions.” Kim

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  • Chip70

    This is a a Tea Party/Republican led State – the blame is theirs to own. Unfortunately – texans just don’t follow politics.