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Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie in Photographs

The Eagle Ford Shale in Texas is one of the biggest oil and gas fracking booms in America, though few people know about it.

Also unknown is that local residents are fearing for their health—not from the water, but from the air they breathe. For the most part, Texas legislators and regulators have turned a blind eye to the dangers.

This slideshow is part of Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie, an eight-month investigation into fracking and air pollution in the Eagle Ford by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel.

All photos are by Lance Rosenfield unless otherwise stated.

Image: Lynn Buehring and her husband Shelby at their home near Karnes City, Texas, in the Eagle Ford Shale.

A dangerous mix of chemicals is released during oil and gas extraction.

The chemicals include hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas found in abundance in the Eagle Ford Shale; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, a known carcinogen; sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which irritate the lungs; and other harmful substances such as carbon monoxide and carbon disulfide.

INFOGRAPHIC: Fracking the Eagle Ford: What Chemicals Are Spewed From Oil Wells

Image: Gas flares from well sites over the Eagle Ford Shale emit light and toxic smoke in Karnes County, Texas.

Since 2008, more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk into the Eagle Ford Shale's 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide expanse of rock. Another 5,500 have been approved by state regulators.

Except for facilities emitting high levels of hydrogen sulfide, there are no state laws stipulating how much space should separate wells from buildings, such as homes, schools and churches, in the Eagle Ford.

Image: Detail of an entrance to a well site in Karnes County, Texas, with a sign warning of H2S, which is hydrogen sulfide gas. A wind sock is used to indicate wind direction in case of a poison gas emergency.

There are just five permanent air monitors in the Eagle Ford Shale. As a result, scientists say there's no way to know exactly what kinds of chemicals are being spewed into the air—or the extent of the public health threat posed by the toxic emissions.

"I can control what my kids eat, I can control what goes on their skin, but I can’t control the air that’s coming across from the neighbors," said Eagle Ford resident Amber Lyssy, pictured here with her three children and husband. Six of their dogs suffered mysterious, agonizing deaths, she said.

Lynn Buehring lives with her husband Shelby in Karnes County, in the heart of the Eagle Ford. Since drilling arrived, her asthma has worsened.

Instead of using a breathing machine once or twice a month (pictured here), she now needs it several times a week, and sometimes twice a day. She has also developed migraine headaches so intense that they've induced temporary blindness and brought her to the brink of unconsciousness.

Between Jan. 2010 and Nov. 19 2013, Texas citizens, including the Buehrings, lodged nearly 300 complaints with the Texas environmental regulator related to oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford.

On April 10, 2012, a family in Atascosa County reported an odor "so bad that their lungs feel as if they will burst."

"Help us residents of South Texas before we all die," a Gonzales County resident pleaded the same day.

As of Feb. 1, 2014, only two of the complaints had resulted in fines. The largest was just $14,250.

INFOGRAPHIC: Fracking the Eagle Ford: Citizens' Complaints Reveal Air Pollution Woes

Image: Residents from Karnes County, Texas, and surrounding areas attend a public presentation on fracking emissions in the Eagle Ford Shale. Panna Maria, Texas.

As the number of permitted wells skyrocketed since 2010, the number of employees in the Office of Compliance and Enforcement of the TCEQ, the Texas environmental regulator, fell 13 percent.

Over the same period, the agency's overall budget dropped 34 percent.

INFOGRAPHIC: Drilling Permits Rise at The TCEQ's Budget Falls

Image: Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist who serves on the Board of Directors of Earthworks and is the President of Subra Company, Inc., presents a report titled, "Reckless Endangerment While Fracking the Eagle Ford", to residents of Karnes County, Texas, and surrounding areas at a public meeting.

Eagle Ford residents such as Cynthia Dupnik, pictured here at a community meeting about drilling, are deeply concerned and frustrated.

"The chemicals in the air. We can't get away from 'em," Dupnik said. "I mean 'cause we live here. We're here 24/7. We cannot get away from it."

Texas state Rep. Lon Burnam (pictured here) is a Fort Worth Democrat who has fought for years for stronger environmental regulation of the drilling industry.

Texas environmental regulators adopted stricter rules to decrease harmful oil and gas drilling emissions, but the legislature blocked the rules from being applied to the Eagle Ford.

"I would suggest in large measure that our state is both funded, and controlled by this industry," Burnam said.

Credit: David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News

Forty-two of the 181 members of the Texas legislature, or their spouses, own stock or receive royalties from oil and gas companies active in the Eagle Ford, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of thousands of pages of financial disclosure records.

Their holdings are worth as much as $9.6 million.

Image: Texas Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Credit: Texas Governor's Office