News 8 reports spur change for air quality in Barnett Shale



Posted on December 31, 2009 at 1:06 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 29 at 5:56 PM

Two months ago, News 8 broke a story that has changed the future of health in North Texas.

A dangerous, cancer-causing toxin was found in the air near some natural gas facilities in the Barnett Shale. News 8 took a look at the action that has taken place since the investigation first aired.
Until recently, many North Texans living in the Barnett Shale would tell you they felt lucky to have natural gas operations on their properties
Landowners in more than 15 counties surrounding Fort Worth collected millions in royalty and bonus checks each year. Then, in October, News 8 uncovered the results of testing conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with the help of infrared cameras. Evidence unknown to the public revealed high levels of benzene, a dangerous cancer-causing toxin, near some natural gas facilities in the Barnett Shale.
"If you're exposed to a high enough level for a long enough period of time, it can cause blood diseases leading up to leukemia," said Dr. Michael Honeycutt, with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Honeycutt, the head toxicologist for the TCEQ, agreed to talk to News 8. On October 29, viewers and local leaders alike heard the news for the first time. There are about 12,000 wells in the Barnett Shale.
"Out of those 12,000, we don't know if it's one out of every 10, one out of every 100 [or] one out of every 1,000," Honeycutt.
Sen.Wendy Davis immediately called for a senate investigation. Rep. Lon Burnam renewed his call for a moratorium on new drilling permits until the TCEQ study could be completed.

"I think a lot of people thought, 'Oh, it's free energy and we're all going to make a lot of money,'" Burnam said. "But nobody looked at the expense involved on our environment, on our health."
Other leaders, however, were hesitant to speak publicly.
Later, the commission also revealed more specifics, saying that the commission has collected 300 air samples at about 30 facilities in Tarrant, Wise, Denton, Parker and Johnson Counties since August. Of those, 50 samples exceeded the commission's benchmark for concern about long-term health risks if the exposure levels are sustained over years.
Some of the samples triggered alarm bells, including one taken at a compressor station outside Decatur that contained benzene at a level of 1,100 parts per billion.
"That would be equivalent to opening up a can of gasoline and holding it up under your nose," Honeycutt said.
Fort Worth demanded testing inside that city's limits, expressing frustration that many samples were taken to the north and west of the city.
"I don't think we can wait," said council member Kathleen Hicks. 
The town of DISH called on companies to halt operations. Colleyville became the first city to consider rules requiring air testing for permitted natural gas operations. Flower Mound temporarily suspended the issuance of new permits, which has since been lifted. Concerned citizens across the Dallas-Fort Worth area formed the North Central Texas Communities Alliance.
"We felt there was power in bringing people together," said Esther McElfish, NCTCA.
"The coverage you provided I think was critical in mobilizing local attention and helping to motivate state officials to pay as much attention to the Barnett Shale as they're paying today," said Dr. Al Armendariz. 
One of the biggest changes since news of the benzene findings first broke has been the selection of well-known environmentalist Armendariz as the new EPA Region 6 Administrator.
"We are going to be looking at oil and gas fields, ensuring that oil and gas operators are complying with permits, complying with federal rules," he said. "It is going to be a big priority for this office."
The TCEQ air study continues. In the meantime, the commission has asked companies to look for and report any fugitive emissions.
Armendariz said that stricter standards are coming. The EPA has just begun formulating new regulations of air emissions in the Barnett Shale. The regulations are expected to target air pollutants from smaller facilities the EPA currently has limited authority to regulate. The new rules could be in effect by the end of 2011.