A “toxic mix of irresponsible industry operators and negligent regulators,” as well as suffering families, marks hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the Eagle Ford Shale, according to a newly released critical report by national environmental non-profit group, Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
The study, titled “Reckless Endangerment While Fracking the Eagle Ford,” slams state agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to provide oversight and take action to both reduce pollution, notify residents and penalize facilities. Researchers undertook their own air pollution testing to conclude fracking the shale threatens the health and safety of residents in the area.
The report examined the case of one family pitted in the center of the South Texas shale boom. Also the focus of a March Current cover story by Michael Barajas, the Cernys, who reside in Karnes County, are surrounded by 55 oil wells within two miles of their home. After a litany of health problems from headaches, nosebleeds and rashes to asthma (which they say is caused by pungent odors and fumes from the shale industry), and unresponsive requests from state regulators, the family contacted Earthworks. The Current’s investigation captured the Cernys’ health struggles, TCEQ site visits to Marathon Oil facilities and ShaleTest activists’ work in assessing pollutants.
Now, Earthworks has completed its 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 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 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 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 those 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 mainly exposes fracking’s negative effects, reports that downplay the 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 leak levels caused by shale gas fracking are lower 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 industry trucks roll 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.”
TCEQ responded the next day with a defense, saying since 2000 they’ve collected several millions of data points for VOCs in the Eagle Ford Shale (and North Texas’ Barnett Shale), finding evidence that shale play activity does not “significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.” They then listed a few “actual facts” countering the Marathon Oil facility inspections that seem to reinforce Earthworks’ study to some extent: For one, they didn’t deny fleeing the site in Karnes County but argue they alerted Marathon about the high VOC levels. In other words, they left it up to the oil company to notify residents the land they’re drilling is so contaminated that state regulators were forced to evacuate. Second, TCEQ say they’ve conducted 408 investigations into Eagle Ford since 2012 and issued more than 180 notices of violation in the past three years as a result—yet still no penalties for the violator.
“The TCEQ has a vigorous, effective enforcement operation in the Eagle Ford Shale, and when problems are detected, the TCEQ makes sure they are rapidly fixed,” they wrote in a statement following the Earthworks study.
Earthworks’ spokesperson Alan Septoff isn’t sold, saying, “TCEQ’s nondenial confirms our reports findings.”
“That TCEQ apparently thinks ‘but we told the polluter about the problem’ is an adequate regulatory response tells you all you need to know about how they prioritize Texans’ health versus oil industry profits,” said Septoff. “TCEQ isn’t responsible for making sure the oil and gas industry doesn’t poison our air or water ‘overall,’ they’re responsible for making sure it isn’t poisoned, period.”