'Help us ... before we all die'
The energy industry’s impact on Americans living near drilling areas has been fiercely debated in the last decade, as the shale boom brought drilling to vast stretches of the United States. Much of the concern has centered on how methane and fracking chemicals can contaminate drinking water. But scientists say air pollution is an equally serious problem that receives less attention, in part because it's so difficult to track.
Plumes of contaminated air move with the wind. Some of the chemicals break down in sunlight or react with other pollutants to form new compounds. The evidence disappears quickly, while health effects may linger.
People who live close to oil and gas development — whether in Texas’ Eagle Ford, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale or Wyoming’s Green River Basin — tend to report the same symptoms: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems. Public health experts say these shared experiences point to a pressing need for improved air monitoring.
“If you have pockets of communities with the same symptoms downwind of similar sources, then there is a body of evidence,” said Isobel Simpson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies air pollution around the world.
Chemicals released during oil and gas extraction include hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas found in abundance in Eagle Ford wells; 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. VOCs also mix with nitrogen oxides emitted from field equipment to create ozone, a major respiratory hazard.
Studies show that, depending on the concentration and length of exposure, these chemicals can cause a range of ailments, from minor headaches to neurological damage and cancer. People in the Eagle Ford face an added layer of risk: hydrogen sulfide, also known as H2S or sour gas, a naturally occurring component of crude oil and natural gas that lurks underground.
Like asbestos entombed in a 50-year-old ceiling, H2S usually isn’t a problem if left undisturbed. Once liberated, however, it becomes a formidable threat, capable even in miniscule doses — a few parts per million or less — of aggravating asthma and causing nausea, headaches and eye irritation. It gives off a rotten-egg odor in lower concentrations but at around 100 parts per million the chemical knocks out the sense of smell and begins to act as an asphyxiant. At 1,000 ppm it kills within minutes.
Karnes County, in particular, is rich with H2S. According to data operators have submitted to the Railroad Commission, the county’s Person field has an average concentration of 16,399 ppm — 16 times the lethal dose — with a maximum concentration of 71,550 ppm. The Panna Maria field has an average concentration of 24,408 ppm and a maximum of 39,000 ppm.
H2S and some other chemicals emitted during oil and gas production are so dangerous that the federal government has developed safety standards for workers who encounter them on a regular basis.
But there are no clear federal standards to protect people living near drilling sites — including children, the sick and the elderly — who intermittently breathe varying amounts of toxic emissions for years on end.
Scientists “really haven’t the foggiest idea” how oil and gas development affects public health, said Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. Bernstein blames the information gap on a lack of monitoring and research, particularly in the rural, less affluent communities where most of the drilling occurs.
“It's not as though there isn't reason to be concerned,” he said. “These are industrial activities with known emissions that are known to affect people's health.”
Complaints lodged with the TCEQ hint at the scope of air problems in the Eagle Ford.
On Dec. 7, 2011, a woman in Frio County smelled “an oil and rotten egg odor” around 2 a.m. and woke up “with an upset stomach and horrible headaches.”
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. The complaint alleged that an operator had dug a hole in the ground and buried “oily drilling waste…sometimes with diesel fuel, chemicals and oil floating on it.”
Nearly 300 complaints have been filed by Eagle Ford residents since 2010. But for every person who bothers to call the TCEQ, untold others suffer in silence. Among them: Mary Alice Longoria, an X-ray technician at a state prison who lives with her husband in a mobile home near Kenedy, in Karnes County. The Longorias have owned their 2½-acre plot for more than three decades. Until a year ago, Mary Alice could sit on her deck and see only rolling pasture, occupied by horses, cows, deer and the occasional dove hunter.
Now, oil rigs and storage tanks mar her view and send foul odors, noise and blinding lights into her home. A flare ebbs and flows in the distance. She no longer allows her 2-year-old grandson, Gabriel, to play in the backyard because “I’m afraid for his health.” Family barbecues, a staple of South Texas life, have been discontinued.
If the flare burns through the night, Longoria said, she often finds a sticky deposit on the windshield of her pickup truck when she rises before dawn to go to work. Lynn Buehring, who lives about five miles away, described a “greasy, yellow substance” on her windshield.
Longoria hasn’t confronted the operator of the drilling site, having concluded it would do no good. Nor has she tried to contact the state. She wasn’t sure which agency would even field a complaint, she told a reporter; she’d never heard of the TCEQ.
The TCEQ maintains that people like Longoria have nothing to fear.
“[M]onitoring data provides evidence that overall, shale-play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow wrote in an email. “While improperly operated facilities can result in temporary, local, unauthorized emissions, there are no indications that these emissions are of sufficient concentration or duration to harm residents of the Eagle Ford or Barnett shales.”
Omar Garcia, president of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable — STEER — the communications arm of the 11 biggest Eagle Ford operators, predicts a “huge reduction in flaring” as more pipelines are installed to capture pollutants.
“The oil and gas industry places a premium on safety and the environment,” Garcia said. “All the operators follow strict guidelines.”