No penalties for chronic polluter in Eagle Ford—report

E&E reporter | Mike Lee

September 19, 2013
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Texas regulators investigating complaints at two sites in the Eagle Ford Shale oil field found air pollution levels so high that it was unsafe to stay in the area. Yet the state agency in charge of air pollution allowed the oil company that owns the facilities to fix the problems without paying a penalty, according to a report from an environmental group.

The episodes in Karnes County, southeast of San Antonio, show the need for tougher regulation of the oil and gas industry, said the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which based the report on a document it obtained under the state Public Information Act.

"Air pollution from oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford Shale definitely threatens, and likely harms, the health of Karnes County, Texas, residents," the report says. "Despite these findings, no action has been taken by regulators to rein in irresponsible operations, or otherwise protect area residents."

Residents in the area, including a family that has 18 wells within 2 miles of its home, have complained of nosebleeds and other symptoms that are consistent with exposure to toxic oil field chemicals, according to the report, "Reckless Endangerment While Fracking the Eagle Ford." Earthworks took its own air samples at a third site in Karnes County and found levels of pollutants that exceeded the state's long-term exposure limits.

Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the agency doesn't comment on third-party reports.

Lee Warren, a spokeswoman for Marathan, said the company hasn't seen the report and therefore can't speak about it but that "Marathon Oil has a strong set of core values, which includes a firm commitment to responsible operations and environmental stewardship."

The Eagle Ford Shale covers an area 400 miles long and as wide as 50 miles. Oil production, spurred by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has expanded exponentially from 352 barrels a day in 2008 to 598,000 barrels a day in June, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling.

With the expansion have come complaints about traffic, noise, dust and air pollution. The state has allowed some oil companies to burn natural gas in flares because there aren't enough pipelines to collect the fuel. Residents in Karnes County filed more than 30 complaints of odors and other problems with the TCEQ since drilling began, according to Earthworks.

Investigators from the commission visited Marathon's Yosko No. 1 Production Facility in March 2012. A handheld monitor showed high levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and the team "evacuated the area quickly to prevent exposure," according to the documents obtained by Earthworks. Volatile organic compounds are pollutants that can be emitted by oil and gas wells; some can be toxic.

The state warned Marathon it could be issued a nuisance violation and apparently dropped the case when Marathon repaired a leaky valve, the Earthworks report says.

TCEQ staff visited Marathon's Sugarhorn facility in Karnes County four times in 2012, after residents complained of odors and other problems, Earthworks said.

During a June 2012 visit, investigators planned to take air samples at the site with canisters. They canceled the plan after a handheld monitor showed high levels of VOCs, according to the documents Earthworks obtained.

"The VOC measurement was too high to safely obtain the samples," the inspectors wrote, according to Earthworks.

Regulators issued a notice of violation to Marathon over the June incident and other violations but apparently allowed Marathon to resolve the complaint by providing training for its staff. The state evidently didn't fine Marathon, Earthworks said, for the June incident or for incidents in August and September in which Marathon reported releasing high levels of VOCs and hydrogen sulfide, a potentially fatal gas that is produced in the Eagle Ford field. The hydrogen sulfide level was 112 times the state's maximum emissions limit during the August release.

Tagged with: health, fracking, eagle ford shale