Barnett Shale air study reveals alarming results

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by CHRIS HAWES / WFAA - TV

wfaa.com

Posted on November 25, 2009 at 1:03 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 25 at 10:27 PM

Tests are still under way, but News 8 has obtained some of the test results from the Barnett Shale Air Quality study, looking at levels of the cancer-causing toxin benzene.

If the air you breathe for years contains more than 1.4 parts per billion of benzene, state investigators start getting concerned about your health. "It can cause blood diseases leading up to leukemia,” said Texas Commission on Environmental Quality toxicologist Dr. Mike Honeycutt.

So imagine the reaction of scientists looking at an air sample from a Targa Resources compressor station, outside Decatur, west of DISH in Denton County. The sample revealed a level of 1,100 parts per billion of benzene.

"That would be equivalent to opening up a can of gasoline and holding it up under your nose," Honeycutt said.

In a statement, Targa Resources president Joe Bob Perkins said:

“Targa Resources recently learned of a news story referring to the TCEQ’s concerns over emissions from natural gas production in the Barnett Shale. Targa Resources has a strong commitment to our environmental obligations, and we have been recognized for our efforts to improve air quality. While Targa Resources’ goal is to operate our facilities in compliance with all applicable regulations, we also focus on conducting our operations in cooperation with the communities in which we operate. Targa Resources has worked with the TCEQ to ensure compliance with current emissions permits in North Texas and will continue working with the TCEQ as it gathers data and considers updating existing regulations in the area.”

But the study has uncovered even higher levels of benzene in the air. A sample taken at a nearby Devon Energy well head revealed 15,000 parts per billion of benzene.

Devon Energy spokesman Chip Minty points out a reading on public property, further from the wellhead, would have been lower, and provided the following statement:

"...a TCEQ survey sample reflected that a Devon well was emitting natural gas from its wellhead. Prior to its notification of this emission, Devon personnel had found and corrected the leak during the regular course of business ... Devon is sensitive to air quality in North Texas, and uses a number of innovations to reduce its air emissions, such as reduced emission completion methods, low emission valves and vapor recovery systems. Devon’s ongoing effort to reduce emissions is part of Devon’s role as a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Natural Gas STAR program, a voluntary partnership aimed at reducing natural gas emissions. In addition to our independent efforts, we are working closely with TCEQ to address current emissions concerns in North Texas. We appreciate the leadership role TCEQ is playing in addressing recent questions about air quality in North Texas."

Other high readings revealed so far include a compressor station outside Weatherford and a disposal well outside Springtown in Parker County, both of which at dozens of times exceeded the benchmark for concern about long-term exposure.

Parker County Judge Mark Riley ordered the TCEQ testing and records be made available to any citizen who requests them,  free of charge. “We want everybody in the community to know there‘s a potential here, and also there are steps being taken to hopefully resolve this issue,” Riley said.

Since August, TCEQ has taken about 300 air samples at approximately 30 facilities in Tarrant, Wise, Denton, Park, and Johnson counties. Of those, 50 samples exceeded the commission's benchmark for concern about long-term health risk, which refers to exposure over multiple years.

TCEQ cautions that long-term testing is needed to see if the samples are in line with the benzene levels that exist over the course of a year.

"The benzene numbers that we're finding are coming from some part of the oil and gas facilities, so we have to figure out what parts, and how to resolve that issue,” Honeycutt said.

The current study and full testing results won't be released for weeks. The next big hurdle may be figuring out how widespread elevated benzene emissions from natural gas facilities might be.

“We don't know if it's one out of every 10, one out of every 100, one out of every 1,000," Honeycutt said.

One area municipality isn't waiting. DISH -- ringed by compressor stations --  has sent a letter to companies in and around the town, asking operations be halted until more is known.

Thus far, the town southwest of Denton has received no responses.

E-mail  chawes@wfaa.com

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