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Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents

Eight-month investigation reveals that the Texas State Legislature is more intent on protecting the industry than protecting residents' health.

Lisa Song, Jim Morris and David Hasemyer

Feb 18, 2014
(Page 8 of 9 )

When foul odors swept across the farm, the Lyssys suspected a gas processing plant less than a mile away. Fred stopped letting his livestock graze on the pasture next to the facility and moved his and Amber's bedroom to the opposite side of the house. They worry about how their three children—ages seven months, 3½ and 6—will be affected by the pollution. They fear it will jeopardize their pledge to provide organic food to their customers. 

"We are about liberty and freedom," Amber said, "but they are trespassing with their emissions."

The Lyssys' anxiety mounted when six of their dogs—Anatolian Pyrenees that they use to work the farm—suffered mysterious, agonizing deaths. Five died within a few days of one another in February 2013. Amber said they began vomiting, scratching their heads bloody and whining for no apparent reason. Their veterinarian ruled out common substances like antifreeze and rat poison but could provide no explanation. The cost of a necropsy barred any more definitive answers.

After the Lyssys complained to the TCEQ, inspectors made two visits to the area. Using an infrared camera and handheld gas monitors, they detected hydrogen sulfide and other unspecified emissions coming from a Hunt Oil complex with 12 crude oil tanks and a flare.

A Hunt executive told the TCEQ he had no idea there were leaks and promised to repair the vents and oil tank hatches responsible for the emissions. The agency was satisfied and did not cite the company for any violations.

Three weeks later, the investigators returned for a third visit and again found hydrogen sulfide leaks, according to a TCEQ report. Again, Hunt—a private company with $4 billion in revenue last year, according to Forbes—promised to get things fixed.

The investigation was closed in August with a notation that there were "no violations." The Lyssys' sixth Pyrenees, Big Boy, died in November after showing the same symptoms as their other dogs.

Paul Licata, Hunt's vice president of environmental, health and safety, blamed the leaks found during the TCEQ's follow-up visit on contractors who had done the initial repairs. When the inspectors discovered the site was still leaking, Licata said, Hunt responded immediately. 

Jeanne Phillips, a Hunt spokeswoman, said the company "is pleased that the TCEQ found no fault with Hunt and we are proud of our longstanding policy of working closely with communities … where we have operations."

Oil companies are still pressuring Ramos to lease her mineral rights. They want the land so badly, she said, that company representatives have trespassed, lied, badgered and turned four of her six daughters against her.

"My daughters say, 'But Mom, God put the oil on the land to be used, so you are going against God,'" Ramos said. 

Ramos sees it differently. If she gave in to the oil companies, she said, "I would be going against God because he gave us this land to take care of." 

Lessons From the Barnett Shale

Texas regulators and politicians had a clear idea of the problems that would arise in the Eagle Ford even before the drilling boom began. 

Between 2003 and 2011, some 2,000 wells had been drilled within the city of Fort Worth, which lies atop the Barnett Shale formation, and six times that many were drilled in nearby communities. Tanker trucks rumbled past suburban lawns. Flares burned next to schools and playgrounds. An industry normally hidden in rural areas was suddenly visible to suburbanites, some of whom were frightened and incensed by the intrusion.

Under pressure from residents and the EPA, the TCEQ added more air monitors in the Barnett and agreed to respond to complaints in a timelier fashion. It also tightened its permit-by-rule regulations in the region.

The TCEQ was going to extend the new rules statewide, but in 2011 the legislature stepped in and passed a bill that effectively blocked the plan. The following year, the TCEQ itself limited the rules' use in the Barnett, restricting them to 15 of its 24 counties.

A 2012 agency memo shows the TCEQ was fully aware that drilling companies needed more oversight. Titled "Findings and Lessons Learned from Barnett Shale Oil and Gas Activities," it said "nearly all of the issues documented [in the Barnett] arose from human or mechanical failure that were quickly remedied and could have been avoided through increase [sic] diligence on the part of the operator."

Soward said Barnett residents got at least a little protection because they "yelled and screamed" until the TCEQ responded. But yelling—and organizing—doesn't come naturally to most residents in the Eagle Ford, who tend to have fewer resources and less political power than people in North Texas.

The demographic differences may help explain why the city ofDallas recently passed one of the strictest setback rules in the country: No well can be drilled within 1,500 feet of homes, schools, churches and other sensitive locations. In Colorado, the equivalent rule is 500 to 1,000 feet depending on the type of building; it's 500 feet in Pennsylvania.

Texas has no statewide setbacks, aside from a 1,320-foot buffer zone for facilities with high levels of hydrogen sulfide. For all other oil and gas sites, it relies on communities to take the lead. Eagle Ford counties like Karnes, LaSalle and McMullen have no restrictions despite a glut of drilling.

No End in Sight

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