Report Slams Eagle Ford Shale Regulators for Health Hazards Lax Oversight
San Antonio Current | Mary Tuma
September 19, 2013
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A newly released critical report by national environmental non-profit group, Earthworks, describes drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale as marked by a “toxic mix of irresponsible industry operators and negligent regulators,” as well as suffering families. Beneath the Eagle Ford formation in South Texas lies a 400-mile stretch of oil and gas, ripe for major corporations to drill. The process employed—a method called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”—pumps a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressures thousands of feet below the ground to break up the shale in order to emit the fuel source.
The study, conducted by Earthwork’s Oil and Gas Accountability Project, slams state agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to provide oversight and take action to both reduce pollution and penalize facilities. Researchers, who undertook their own air pollution testing, conclude fracking the shale threatens the health and safety of residents in the area.
Titled “Reckless Endangerment While Fracking the Eagle Ford” the study examined the case of one family pitted in the center of the South Texas shale boom. The Cernys, who reside in Karnes County–a rural area Southwest of San Antonio– are surrounded by 18 oil wells within a mile of their home and 37 existing wells and oil/gas processing facilities can be found no further than two miles away. After a litany of health problems from headaches, nosebleeds and rashes to asthma—they say caused by pungent odors and fumes from the shale industry—and an unresponsive requests from state regulators, the family contacted Earthworks. The Cernys were the focus of a March Current cover story by Michael Barajas. The Current’s investigation captured the Cernys health struggles, TCEQ site visits to Marathon Oil facilities and ShaleTest activists’ work in assessing pollutants.
Now, the Earthworks has completed it’s own investigation, taking air quality samples from Eagle Ford Shale facilities close to the Cerny home and reporting back that inspectors actively avoided evidence of harm to residents, a growing pattern among fracking development nationwide.
The Cernys and other Karnes County residents filed more than 30 air complaints with TCEQ and the Railroad Commission but the facilities in question never received any penalties as a result, the report notes. Inspections that did arise ended with TCEQ regulators either evacuating the premises due to such high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on-site or simply not testing due to high VOC levels. For example, a TCEQ inspection note for the Sugarhorn Central Facility operated by Marathon Oil, located 1.3 miles from the Cernys’ house, reads, “[…]Canister samples were not taken as the VOC measurement was too high to safely obtain the samples,” as per an open records requests. Earthworks wryly noted, “[p]ollution too dangerous to measure, not dangerous enough to penalize.”
According to the EPA, health effects of VOCs—emitted gasses comprised of a variety of chemicals, such as benzene—vary, ranging from throat irritation and nausea to liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. Exposure to some organics is “suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.”
In testing for methane and VOCs, Earthworks and ShaleTest used infrared cameras, which make the pollutants visible. The groups found levels that exceed TCEQ’s long-term Air Monitoring Comparison Values. The researchers also draw attention to the presence of hydrogen sulfide in the Eagle Ford Shale at, “concentrations that may pose a threat to public health.” According to OSHA, the gas is considered “extremely hazardous.” Low levels of exposure can cause eye irritation and coughing while high levels may lead to shock, coma and even death. Environmental activists additionally noted overlapping health symptoms (increased fatigue, joint pain, severe headaches) between the Cernys and that of families living near the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania.
“People are afraid to drink their own water, afraid of what the next nose bleed means, afraid their homes are no longer safe to live in. They are even afraid to speak out,” said Sharon Wilson, report co-author and Texas resident in a statement. Wilson is a noted drilling reform activist who writes about fracking’s impact in her blog, Bluedaze. “We need regulators, whether they’re in Texas, Pennsylvania or the White House, to put community health before fracking industry profits. Right now, they’re not.”
While the study was conducted by a group that strives to promote government oversight on drilling and highlights fracking’s negative effects, reports that downplay shale industry’s impact are known to be fraught with controversy. For example, a study, released earlier this week by the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund found methane levels leaks caused by shale gas fracking are at lower levels than EPA estimates. However, the peer-reviewed study was funded in part by major oil companies, including Shell, Exxon Mobil and Chevron, bringing into question its neutrality. Similarly, a previous study from UT that disproved a link between fracking and groundwater contamination stirred complaints of ethical violations, as it was later discovered a lead author had strong ties to the oil and gas industry—financial and otherwise, information he didn’t disclose upon the study’s release.
In a video released by Earthworks, the Cernys discuss the effects of fracking on their health and safety as fracking trucks rolls by, drowning out portions of the interview. Mike Cerny, says, “This isn’t living anymore. It’s just existing, and wondering what you are going to breathe in next.”