New air monitor planned for heavily fracked South Texas county

Backed by results of a new air-quality study along with mounting pressure from local officials and the simmering discontent of local residents, Texas regulators have decided to install an air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale boom. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has determined that an air monitor is needed in Karnes County, the epicenter of one of the fastest-growing drilling regions in the nation, where more than 10,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk since 2008. Residents of the 26-county area have complained of breathing difficulties and other health problems. Although the TCEQ conducts sporadic mobile monitoring and operates five permanent monitors at the edges of the 20,000-square mile Eagle Ford, little monitoring has been conducted in areas with the heaviest drilling activity. In February, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel showed that the TCEQ knows almost nothing about air quality in the area. The series, “Big Oil, Bad Air,” also showed that the state rarely penalizes air quality violators and operates in a political system that favors the industry. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat whose district includes Karnes County, said that TCEQ officials raised the issue of additional air monitoring in the county with her the same month as the investigation. The TCEQ then conducted mobile monitoring in Karnes County during April and May. Zaffirini said she was told by TCEQ officials that the results did not show anything of concern. Because of all the production activity in the county, however, it was decided that the installation of a permanent monitor would be prudent. The device is expected in place by the end of October, Zaffirini said. One of the locations being considered is the grounds of the Karnes County courthouse complex in Karnes City. John Bosch, a retired air monitoring expert with more than 30 years’ experience at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the new monitor is "a very general thing that’s intended to measure the general exposure of people in the area. “It’s not going to solve any of the…immediate, localized health problems caused by major leaks of toxic gases from emitting sources [in the] petroleum industry," he said. The primary purpose of the monitor will be to test for toxic hydrocarbon emissions and hydrogen sulfide, a potentially deadly gas often associated with oil and gas wells in the Eagle Ford. In an email, TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said the monitor will take continuous measurements of 46 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals are released during all stages of oil and gas operations; some, like benzene, can cause cancer after sustained exposure. The monitor will cost about $12,000 to build and $135,000 per year to operate, Clawson said. He said Karnes County was not specifically targeted for a mobile monitoring study in April and May. It may be that agency investigators performed some monitoring as part of their routine activities, Clawson said. He cited a separate mobile monitoring study by University of Texas at Austin scientist David Sullivan as a factor in the agency’s decision to place the monitor in Karnes County. Sullivan’s study, conducted over 12 days in May and June, was not intended to focus on local air quality within the county; rather, it focused on the fringes of the Eagle Ford to determine the effects of pollution migrating upwind and downwind of the shale play. Sullivan reported that during 10 of 12 sampling trips, hydrocarbon emissions were higher downwind – i.e., toward San Antonio — than upwind, a finding he described as statistically significant. Zaffirini said data from the new monitor will help the TCEQ "be better informed so they can protect our air quality and the people living in the area. We need to know what is happening before there are any problems.” Long-time TCEQ critic Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who is serving out the last few months of his term in the Texas House of Representatives, dismissed the TCEQ’s action as disingenuous. “It’s simply tokenism on their part,” he said. “I think they felt the pressure to look like they are doing something.” If the agency were serious about tackling oil and gas emissions, Burnam said, it would develop stricter pollution limits and conduct more studies to try to understand the health effects. “No. This is Texas and the TCEQ – too little, too late,” he said. Jeanne Shepherd, a Karnes County resident whose rural home is surrounded by wells, said she would have preferred that the agency test the air in multiple places. "But one place is better than no place." Shepherd said the disruption caused by industry-related noise, lights and fumes have made her home unlivable. There were times last summer when "you couldn’t breathe outside and you couldn’t breathe inside, sometimes." Zaffirini said a balance must be struck. “We are reaping the benefits of the Eagles Ford, but at the same time we have to protect the people and the environment,” she said. “The two should go hand in hand.” Groundswell for more monitoring Local elected officials have joined the call for improved air monitoring. Karnes County Judge Richard Butler, the county’s top executive, said TCEQ officials came to him in March and told him they were considering installing a monitor in the county because of increased attention on emissions. A few weeks ago, he said, TCEQ confirmed it would do so. “It will hopefully give us an accurate, realistic, factual analysis of the quality of the air we are breathing,” Butler said. “We need to know what is going on so that if there is a problem due to emission totals we can take steps to correct it and protect our citizens.” The monitor is long overdue, he said. But “there is no time like the present.” “It will either give us reassurance or it will give direction and knowledge that will help us correct any deficiencies,” Butler said. Shelby Dupnik, one of four Karnes County commissioners, said he began to think seriously about the air pollution implications after he saw an online Weather Channel documentary that accompanied the CPI and InsideClimate News investigation. In June, he and Butler approached the TCEQ to further discuss monitoring in the county. They also reached out to Sen. Zaffirini and learned about her interest in the issue. "It was a group effort," Dupnik said. During his meetings with the TCEQ, Dupnik said, he has emphasized the need to move swiftly and to "get the most accurate data we could find" about how oil and gas activity is impacting the air. Those impacts could extend far beyond the Eagle Ford. In recent years, rising levels of ozone in San Antonio have prompted the city to study the extent to which emissions from the Eagle Ford are contributing to the problem. San Antonio is about 50 miles northwest of Karnes City. San Antonio is now at risk of being declared out of compliance with federal standards on ozone, a major respiratory hazard. If that happens, the city could be subject to additional regulations and limits on development. In early September, Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, wrote a letter to the TCEQ expressing his concerns about the fracking boom’s impact on San Antonio’s air quality. Wolff said he was inspired to contact the TCEQ after reading a series in the San Antonio Express-News in August that detailed air pollution in the Eagle Ford from natural gas flaring. Wolff said he was "really pleased" by the agency’s decision. "I think the TCEQ is starting to respond now," he said. "I think we’re on the right track." Lynn Buehring, who lives a few miles outside of Karnes City with her husband Shelby, was cautiously optimistic about the new development. The Buehrings don’t have much faith in TCEQ’s commitment to improving the air quality around their single-story, white ranch house that is surrounded by a growing number of wells, smoking flares and giant holding tanks. There are at least 50 oil and gas wells and 9 processing plants within 2.5 miles of their home. They have been complaining for years to the agency that emissions are making them sick; that they can no longer enjoy the outdoors because of the suffocating odors. “I think it’s a good idea they are doing this, [installing the monitor]," Lynn Buehring said. “I just hope they use the information they get to help us.” The fumes have gotten so bad that the couple began house-hunting in the spring to find a new home away from the fracking boom. They recently put those plans on hold because of financial reasons. Buehring said she first heard about the planned air monitor several weeks ago from George Ortiz, a TCEQ official in San Antonio. But she’s skeptical that TCEQ officials will interpret the data collected in an impartial manner. “We have told them how bad it is, but they tell us they can never find a problem,” Buehring said. “So I hope they see what this monitor tells them backs up what we have been telling them: that things are bad around here…But they seem to be on the side of the producers, so I don’t know if they will really want the truth.” In a written statement, Omar Garcia, president and CEO of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable, an industry group, said the monitor will provide “a better understanding of the air emissions generated by all sources…Industry will continue working with regulators and within their companies to employ programs and equipment to lower, capture and eliminate emissions.” Good for ozone, not for local health effects Scientists said the new monitor will probably be most useful for validating ozone studies. Ground-level ozone is created when VOCs and nitrous oxides react in sunlight. Both types of pollutants are released by industrial activity, including cars, power plants and oil and gas operations. As scientists in San Antonio create ozone models to project how Eagle Ford activity will impact the city’s air quality, they need to check the computer models’ validity against real-life data, said Sullivan, the UT-Austin researcher. "In order to have accurate modeling inputs, you need to know what the actual conditions are out there," he said. Gunnar Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, agreed. The monitor is "good for science" because it can improve the San Antonio models, he said. But he said the monitor would have little impact on tracking health impacts from the Eagle Ford Shale. "The Eagle Ford is so huge. One monitor is not going to tell you what your [chemical] exposure is, if you live very far away from that." From September 1, 2009, through August 31, 2013, there was a 100-percent increase statewide in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production. Many of the complaints Eagle Ford residents have filed with the TCEQ are related to such releases; in most cases, the agency does not fine the operators, even when an inspection reveals improper operation of equipment. Schade said the Karnes County monitor is unlikely to pick up emissions from a nearby source unless the wind is blowing in the right direction at the right time. In his September letter to Wolff, the Bexar County judge, TCEQ commissioner Bryan Shaw said the agency’s "monitoring and surveillance efforts throughout the state have proven that issues regarding air emissions from oil and gas operations are sporadic and localized in nature rather than area-wide and typically occur as the result of some mechanical or operational error." In his response, Wolff said Shaw’s conclusion "provides comfort as one hopes that such errors are limited in number and not life-threatening when they do occur. On the other hand, we both could cite examples where lives have been lost and property destroyed due to a sporadic and localized mechanical or operational error." Bosch, the former EPA official, said the only way to track how gas leaks, accidents and emission spikes from industry sources are impacting health would be to conduct continuous air quality monitoring at the fence-line of every processing plant, well pad and facility. Only then could the TCEQ understand the magnitude and cumulative impacts of the emissions. Ideally, he said, these monitoring requirements would be a condition of the facilities’ operating permits, but he knows the idea would get little traction in Texas’ political climate. He cited BP’s Whiting refinery in Indiana as an example of a site with effective monitoring. The facility is surrounded by fence-line air monitors, and the data are available on the web so local residents can track the refinery’s emissions. For a place like the Eagle Ford, where many sources are spread out over a large area, Bosch suggested regular mobile monitoring near the facilities. Schade, the Texas A&M scientist, said the single Karnes County monitor, though limited, could still have an indirect "watchdog effect" on the industry. "Once there’s a monitor in place, people might get a little more careful," he said, and increase oversight of their operations to reduce emissions. Lisa Song and David Hasemyer are reporters with InsideClimate News.


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