The sour side of life in South Texas' Eagle Ford Shale
Published: March 27, 2013
Depending on where you drill, wells in the Eagle Ford pump out a combination of oil, gas, or condensate. Companies can store and ship the gases for treatment. If the pipeline infrastructure isn’t there or if those “economically irrelevant” reserves aren’t worth the hassle, companies can get a permit from state regulators to burn, or “flare”, the gases.
It’s roughly a mile from Mike and Myra Cernys’ front door to Marathon’s Sugarhorn Central Facility, home to multiple crude oil, condensate, and wastewater tanks, as well as two flares.
TCEQ records show an inspector first investigated the Sugarhorn facility on August 15, 2012 to follow up on the Cernys’ complaints.
An inspector spotted emissions coming from the storage tanks using an infrared camera. TCEQ records note that during a 12-hour period, the facility emitted 42 pounds of benzene, over four times what they permitted for that specific site. Hydrogen sulfide, a natural gas that can cause serious injury when inhaled even at minimal concentrations, leaked from the facility at over 100 times the permitted amount. Nearly 3,000 pounds of methane went into the air, records show.
When the TCEQ returned on September 5, emissions at the site still exceeded permitted levels. It wasn’t until October 24, records indicate, that regulators sat down with company officials to discuss “ongoing issues with Marathon’s facilities located in Karnes County.” When a TCEQ investigator returned on December 18, infrared video still showed emissions spewing from the facility’s storage tanks.
While TCEQ mandates companies report such “emissions events” within 24 hours, Marathon didn’t report the August and September incidents until December 20, well after two TCEQ investigations and a company meeting with regulators.
“It’s disconcerting to say the least,” said Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based environmental scientist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who reviewed the TCEQ records.
Subra was troubled that when Marathon finally reported the problems — at TCEQ’s prodding — the company only did so as two isolated 12-hour events. “It’s hard to believe this was only happening the two days that TCEQ just happened to go out and investigate,” Subra said.
“For some of these compounds, it’s a huge quantity that got reported,” Subra insisted. For the August incident, benzene was at levels you’d expect to find near an oil refinery, she said.
“When, say, an oil refinery releases more than 10 pounds of benzene within that period, it’s a big deal,” Subra said. “Here we had 42 pounds of benzene released. It’s enormous.”
Prolonged exposure to benzene, Subra says, is known to cause leukemia and blood cell damage. In addition, TCEQ reports from the facility showed elevated levels of toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene, compounds that may cause liver and kidney damage over long exposure periods, Subra says. In the short-term, “you’d expect to see nose, throat, eye and skin irritation,” Subra said.