Air Monitor in Texas Fracking-Boom Country Is Up and Soon to Track Pollution

It may be a while before Karnes County and its neighbors know whether they're breathing dangerous air.

Graphic credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News

The first air monitor in the heart of the fracking-intensive Eagle Ford Shale region of south Texas has been installed and will be in operation following calibration tests to assess its accuracy.

The 40-foot-by-40-foot monitor that looks like a cargo trailer with antennas was set in place on the grounds of the Karnes County courthouse on the main street of Karnes City last month by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Placing the air monitor in Karnes County follows a recent air-quality study that tracked hydrocarbon emissions on the fringe of the region, pressure from local officials, news reports and residents worried about the air they breathe.

Yet even when the monitor begins producing air quality data, that information may not spark official concern because Texas adheres to air quality guidelines that permit exposure to higher amounts of some chemicals than other states.

The monitor was supposed be up and running by the end of October, but locating the monitor on the spot initially proposed would have ruined the view of the picturesque 90-year-old courthouse, so the Texas Historical Commission asked for a new location.

Until the oil-and-gas boom brought hundreds of wells, thousands of 18-wheel big rigs and a skyline dotted with flares to burn off unwanted gas, Karnes County was largely a rural area dominated by open prairie and sprawling ranches.

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The $122,000 monitor, which was relocated to a less-intrusive site on the courthouse grounds, will have three instruments to measure for specific pollutants. All three pull in ambient air samples at least once every hour for analysis of 46 volatile organic compounds, along with testing for hydrogen sulfide, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide.

Once the monitor has been calibrated, TCEQ scientists will evaluate the data for any potential health impacts, according to TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow. The data will be posted on the agency's website when it becomes available.

David Sullivan, a research associate with the University of Texas's Center for Energy and Environmental Resources, will be collecting data from the monitor and preparing reports for TCEQ.

He said the primary objective of the Karnes County monitor will be to determine what's in the air people are breathing, and whether it affects human health.

Sullivan, who also has studied the regional air effects of oil and gas for TCEQ, said information from the monitor will be used to assess possible long-term and short-term health risks as well as identifying any nuisance concerns, like odors.

Sullivan will review data from the monitor to determine the source of the emissions being registered. It will be up to TCEQ to decide whether the data indicates emissions exceed state health standards.

The monitor's findings will be compared with TCEQ's chemical exposure guidelines, which are used to assess the risk to humans.

The guidelines have undergone scientific peer review, Morrow said. To protect human health, the guidelines are set at levels below those would cause adverse health effects, she said.

"Therefore, when a [guideline] is exceeded, it does not necessarily mean that an adverse health effect is expected, but rather that a more in-depth review is needed," Morrow said.

But a review of TCEQ's comparative values by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity found that nearly 60 percent of the TCEQ guidelines for outdoor air quality are less protective than similar numbers used by the Environmental Protection Agency and by California, whose guidelines are among the strictest in the nation.

Information generated by the monitor also will be used by TCEQ to determine whether new limits or standards on emissions from the oil-and-gas industry in the region are warranted, Sullivan said.

Sullivan is careful to explain that not all emissions can be attributed to oil-and-gas wells.  Vehicle exhaust fumes could be a source, for example. He's also quick to caution that even if a toxic emission is detected, it doesn't necessarily indicate people are in danger.

He used benzene as an example. It's a chemical proven to cause cancer, even at very low amounts.

Benzene is commonly detected in the air in residential areas, in rural areas and around industry, he said.

"You face it wherever you go," he said. "Just because you measure it above zero does not mean it's a problem."

Data from the Karnes County monitor will be used to provide an impartial look at what's in the air, he said.

"The idea is to put the emissions into a context so people can make rational decisions rather than being alarmed," he said.

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'The Least Health Protection Possible'

Elena Craft, a Texas-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said she expects the results from the TCEQ's monitor to do little to protect human health or curb emissions.

"Historically we have seen very little action on the part of the agency in addressing issues raised when health guidelines that the state has set are exceeded," she said.

She is critical of the state's relatively lax air quality guidelines that allow people to be exposed to higher amounts of chemicals. Even when the levels are exceeded, she said, the agency often finds excuses to discount the findings.

"In general, I think, the process is designed to give the least health protection possible with the information available," Craft said.

Craft also questioned TCEQ's commitment to using the data to structure its permitting system to reduce emissions from oil-and-gas operations.

"I don't believe the agency is using its full authority to control emissions," she said. "They spend a considerable amount of time and money developing guidelines and even when they are exceeded don't use that authority to enact change," she said.

An investigation by InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity and the Weather Channel in February 2014 disclosed that the TCEQ knows little about air quality in the area. The series, "Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie," found that from Sept. 1, 2009, through Aug. 31, 2013, there was a 100 percent increase statewide unplanned toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production and that companies were rarely fined, even when inspections revealed they were operating equipment improperly.

The courthouse site was picked because of its central location in Karnes City, a community in the midst of one of the largest oil-and-gas booms in the nation.

Although the TCEQ conducts sporadic mobile monitoring and operates five permanent monitors at the edges of the 20,000-square mile, 26-county Eagle Ford, little monitoring has been conducted in areas with the heaviest drilling activity.

More than 10,000 oil-and-gas wells have been sunk in the Eagle Ford since 2008. Emissions from the wells have prompted residents to complain of breathing difficulties and other health problems.

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