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State Agency Responds to Report Criticizing Eagle Ford Shale Fracking Regulation

Photo: MICHAEL BARAJAS, License: N/A

MICHAEL BARAJAS

Mike Cerny at home in Karnes County


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.” 

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