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Cover 03/27/2013

The sour side of life in South Texas' Eagle Ford Shale

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

An anti-fracking activist shoots infared video in Karnes County in early March

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Four albuterol inhalers for the Cernys, a family of three


See video of industrial flares surrounding the Cernys' home

Off-duty San Antonio cops directed a thick swarm of traffic outside the Panna Maria community center in sleepy Karnes County one evening last December. Blue-shirted Marathon Oil representatives beamed, greeting more than 1,000 local landowners who gathered to talk oil, gas, and riches.

But from the moment they walked through the doors, Myra and Mike Cerny began to curse and mutter under their breath. They rolled their eyes at the Marathon freebies, like a water bottle emblazoned with the company logo, and leafed through handouts cheering the oil and gas development that now encircles their rural South Texas home.

Later, while chatting with Marathon representatives, I heard Mike across the room raising his deep, gruff voice.

“I am right in the middle of this stuff,” he told a Marathon worker. “I get three or four migraines a day now. … I never had migraines before in my life.” The headaches grew so persistent in recent months, Mike told the worker, that he shelled out $2,000 for a CT scan. About a year ago, to their surprise, the Cernys became a family of asthmatics, regularly sucking down albuterol inhalers just to breathe. Myra and Mike began to spot mysterious rashes on their arms and legs. Their teenage son suffered unexplained, gushing nosebleeds.

When I found Kirk Spilman, Marathon’s asset manager for the region, he talked me through the company’s commitment to corporate responsibility: how Marathon recently paid to boost law enforcement patrols in the area (an attempt to make the roads safer) and how that evening the company announced a $25,000 donation to local education efforts.

Eventually he got around to the Cernys’ troubles.

“Well, you have to understand their house is very close to the road,” Spilman remarked, before saying Marathon reps would look into the complaints.

In fact, they already had.

The Cernys contacted state environmental regulators nearly five months before Marathon’s community meeting, complaining of “odors described as sulfur and petroleum-like,” according to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records. The Cernys worried the air around their house was being fouled by flares from storage sites leaving trails of black smoke. A TCEQ investigation would eventually show that at a nearby Marathon site, emissions of benzene, a known carcinogen, and other irritants far surpassed permitted levels.

In December, though, the Cernys weren’t aware of any of this. They just knew they felt sick, while Marathon officials at the meeting insisted they didn’t know of any problems. When the Cernys pressed, complaining about a flare roughly a mile from them that continued to spew smoke, Marathon reps denied the site even belonged to the company. “I just took a picture of the sign. It says Marathon,” Myra groused.

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