The Texas Observer

Investigation Reveals Scale of South Texas’ Toxic Air Pollution Problem

Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado.

Investigation Reveals Scale of South Texas’ Toxic Air Pollution Problem

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.

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

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

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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

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:

Welcome to Texas, y’all.